Today marks the fourth anniversary of the arrest of former Maryland resident Alan Phillip Gross, who is serving a 15 year sentence for state security crimes in Cuba. In desperation, he reached out to the only person whom he says can help him: the president of the United States.
Gross, 64, was detained in Havana on Dec. 3, 2009 as he was preparing to board a flight home to the United States. He had been hired by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and its Maryland based contractor, Development Alternatives, Inc., to smuggle cell and satellite phones and computer peripherals onto the island during a series of trips over several months. According to this source, Alan Gross was paid $500,000 for the clandestine "democracy building" project. The hi-tech equipment was delivered to members of a small Jewish community in Cuba, but Gross, who traveled on an ordinary tourist visa, presented himself to government authorities as a humanitarian aid worker.
In February 2012 two Miami papers reported that Gross brought the equipment into Cuba "piece by piece," in small travel bags and carry-on luggage which were less likely to be thoroughly checked at the Havana airport. Included was a type of cell phone chip used by the CIA and Pentagon to evade telecommunications detection. The chips cannot be commercially purchased, and are available only to authorized U.S. government agencies and officials. The ultimate objective was to give the people with whom Gross was working unrestricted internet access, and to enable them to communicate with one another, and with persons in other countries, without the knowledge of Cuban authorities. Havana alleged it was all part of a USAID plot to foment political dissent and destabilize the Castro regime, which will celebrate its 55th year in power next month.
The Miami Herald and its Spanish language sister paper, El Nuevo Herald, reported that Gross is a technology and communications expert who owned a company which specialized in wiring remote areas of the world. The papers claimed that during his trips to Cuba, Gross sometimes accompanied real humanitarian aid workers whom he enlisted to carry small pieces of electronics equipment in their luggage. On one trip Gross and his collaborators smuggled in 12 iPods, 11 Black Berrys, three MacBooks, six external hard disks of 500 gigabytes each, three satellite phones, 18 internet routers, 13 memory chips and three telephones equipped for making internet calls, with other accessories and peripherals. Gross changed or obscured brand or model names and identification marks on some of the equipment before arriving on the island to deceive Cuban customs officials, said the papers, which relied upon an Associated Press investigation. Possession of satellite communication devices without government permission is strictly forbidden by Cuban law.
According to the Miami papers, Gross lied to the Cuban criminal court which tried his case in March 2011. Before his arrest Gross acknowledged in written reports filed with Development Alternatives, "What we're engaged in here is very risky business." On another occasion he wrote, "The discovery of satellite (phone) signals would be catastrophic." The papers also claimed Gross went to extraordinary lengths to conceal from Cuban customs officials the computer and communications network he was constructing for the island's Jewish community. But Gross told the court that he had not intended to violate Cuban law and was unaware he was doing so. His attorneys, supporters and family issued public statements to the same effect, saying Gross was motivated only by charitable considerations. President Obama and former U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton called him a political prisoner. Alan Gross knew USAID mission was illegal and lied to Cuban authorities, Miami papers indicate.
In November 2012, Gross and his wife Judy sued Development Alternatives and the U.S. government in a District of Columbia federal court, essentially acknowledging many of the key facts reported by the Miami newspapers. A judge dismissed their claims against the government on immunity grounds in May, while Development Alternatives settled its portion of the case for an undisclosed sum. The Gross family maintains it has been financially destroyed and emotionally taxed to the limit by Alan's four year confinement. Alan Gross sues U.S., claiming deception.
Several prominent Americans have tried to win Alan Gross' freedom, including former president Jimmy Carter and Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy. Former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson tried too, when he traveled to the island in September 2011. But his improvident public comments about the case backfired, and served only to infuriate the Cubans. Richardson has since acknowledged his errors.
From the beginning the island government has made it clear that it would readily exchange Alan Gross for five Cubans arrested in south Florida in 1998. All were charged with espionage related crimes and given long sentences. Four remain in federal prisons. The fifth, René González, was paroled in October 2011 after serving 13 years. Born in the U.S., González held both American and Cuban citizenship. On release he asked for permission to rejoin his wife and daughters in Havana, and to serve out the rest of his parole term on the island. But the judge refused. U.S. shows revolting double standard in René González case. Only when González agreed to relinquish U.S. citizenship last May did the court allow him to complete the remaining few months of his parole in Cuba. Miami Five member may stay in Cuba if he renounces U.S. citizenship.
In his letter to the president today (full text below), Gross - who said "I have lost almost everything in the last four years" - seems to indirectly acknowledge much of what the Cubans accused him:
"As I reflect on these last four years, I find myself asking the same question – why? Why am I still here? With the utmost respect, Mr. President, I fear that my government – the very government I was serving when I began this nightmare – has abandoned me. It is clear to me, Mr. President, that only with your personal involvement can my release be secured. I know that your administration and prior administrations have taken extraordinary steps to obtain the release of other U.S. citizens imprisoned abroad – even citizens who were not arrested for their work on behalf of their country. I have carried out missions on behalf of my country with pride, even in the face of risks to my safety. I did so because I believed in my country, in my government. I still want to believe my government values my life and my service, and that a U.S. passport means something. I refuse to accept that my country would leave me behind. Mr.President, please take whatever steps are necessary to bring me home."
As of this evening, the White House has issued no response to Alan Gross' latest appeal.
Apr. 8, 2014 - Alan Gross and his representatives announced today that he went on a hunger strike effective Apr. 3, to protest the "inhuman treatment he has received in both Havana and Washington." U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told news agencies that his government was "deeply involved" in efforts to free Gross, who has been in custody for 52 months. The case has lingered in the same diplomatic stalemate since 2009. A swap of the Miami Cubans for Gross - only three now remain jailed - would resolve the matter immediately.
Apr. 12, 2014 - Gross announced yesterday that his hunger strike is over for now, "but there will be more protests."
May 6, 2014 - Four members of the U.S. Congress visited Alan Gross yesterday in his Havana jail cell. Before they departed the island they call for both countries to engage in earnest negotiations to secure his release, "without preconditions." That would apparently include the possibility of freedom for the remaining Miami Three, who have been in federal custody for 16 years - four times as long as Gross.
May 12, 2012 - Opinion: Barack Obama should free Alan Gross
Aug. 10, 2011 - Alan Gross y Los Cinco de Miami
Nov. 1, 2013 - Mexico forgives $341 million USD in Cuban bank debt
Oct. 29, 2013 - United Nations again condemns U.S. embargo of Cuba
May 1, 2013 - Bolivian president Evo Morales expels "subversive" USAID
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