The fate of Alan Gross, the Potomac man serving a 15-year sentence in Cuba for crimes against the state, is directly linked to the fate of three Cuban spies serving jail time in Florida, said Stephen Kimber, author of What Lies Across the Water: The Real Story of the Cuban Five.
“Both sides have kind of backed themselves into the corner,” said Kimber during a weeklong symposium in Washington about the Cubans, held June 5-10. “There has to be a trade. I just don’t think it’s possible for the Cubans to just release him,” Kimber said of Gross.
The event was sponsored by The International Committee for the Freedom of the Cuban 5, which strives to raise awareness of the plight of the Cubans and works to get them out of jail.
Gross, 65, was arrested in 2009 while in Cuba working as a subcontractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development. Gross was there to connect Cuba’s Jewish population to the Internet. He was convicted in 2011.
The Cuban government insists it will free Gross only if the United States lets the Cubans out.
The group is known as the Cuban Five, because five were arrested in Florida in 1998 while attempting to infiltrate groups planning to commit terrorist acts in Cuba, according to Kimber.
When the five men learned of a plot to blow up an airplane, they informed both their government and the United States, he said. “Three months later, they were arrested.” Two have since been freed, but three remain imprisoned, and one is serving a double life sentence.
The bottom line, Kimber said, is that the facts of all the legal cases have become less important than the state of Cuban-American relations. “Clearly, the president of the United States has the power to pardon” the three Cubans still serving jail time, he said. Likewise, the Cuban government could simply let Gross go free.
“Nobody in prison is in a good situation,” Kimber said. “The reality is they are the victims of 50 years” of bad relations between America and Cuba. “The only way to change that is to release them,” he said.
As for Gross, Kimber believes that he isn’t the do-gooder most people believe, and that the Cuban Jewish community already was connected to the Internet. In a magazine article, Kimber wrote that Jewish groups in Cuba have denied working with Gross and that during his five trips to Cuba during 2009, Gross “never informed Cuba of his mission.” Gross smuggled equipment in, sometimes using “unsuspecting members of religious groups as ‘mules,’ ” he wrote.
Andrew Apostolou, a historian who ran human rights programs that were funded by USAID, strongly disputed Kimber’s description during a phone interview with Washington Jewish Week. “Kimber’s comments were despicable. Gross was doing nothing wrong.
Cuba is a dictatorship that makes up its laws as it goes along. Alan Gross is innocent. The Cuban Five are criminals. There is a world of difference between the two. The U.S. is quite right not to trade criminals for an innocent man,” he said.
What Gross was doing was “entirely legal,” he said, adding that Gross was not public about his activities, “because he was working in a dictatorship. They put people in jail for nothing.”
The State Department is involved in Gross’ case. Earlier last week, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki reiterated that “nothing has changed” in this country’s opposition to releasing the three jailed Cubans for Gross.
She said the recent exchange of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who had been held by the Taliban in Afghanistan for the past five years, for five Taliban prisoners is different than the Gross and Cuban Five cases. Bergdahl “was a member – is a member of the military. He was detained during armed combat. These were a unique set of circumstances,” she said.
Still, she said, the United States takes “every step possible to make the case and to take steps to ensure” all Americans held in other countries are returned home.
Rabbi Arnold Saltzman, who leads the Monday vigils for Gross at the Cuban embassy, said recently that the State Department has helped make Gross’ time in prison somewhat better, providing limited phone and computer use.
But Saltzman strongly believes that there should be no connection between Gross’ fate and the fate of the Cubans. Connecting the two cases is merely extortion to free the Cubans, he said.
Gross has been a prisoner for more than four years, serving a sentence that should have only carried a financial penalty at worst, Saltzman said. He urged everyone to speak out and attend the weekly vigils.
“We demonstrate, yet community leaders are absent from the vigil. Should we not be out there to rescue Alan Gross?” he asked. “Israel demonstrated to its citizens it would give away 1,000 prisoners for one young man.” Why can’t the United States consider releasing three men for Gross, he asked.
Gwen Zuares, the sister of Gross’ wife, Judy, said both her family and Gross himself truly appreciate all the community has done to keep the matter in the news, calling the support a comfort.
“Please know, Alan knows everything that is going on. You have no idea how much strength and encouragement Alan receives from this community,” Zuares said following the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington’s annual meeting last month.
Judy Gross started a petition on the Internet site change.org. “We ask you to sign this petition to demand Alan’s immediate release that the Cuban and U.S. governments sit down and resolve Alan’s case,” reads the petition, which had 5,100 signatures on Monday.
Gross noted in the petition that her husband “has been wrongfully imprisoned.” She stated that, “Right now Alan is suffering and so is his family. Since his detention, Alan has lost 105 pounds. He has degenerative arthritis in his leg and a mass behind his shoulder, which a US doctor says may be cancer.”
Scott Gilbert, an attorney representing Gross, would not speak to Washington Jewish Week about Kimber’s remarks.