A gaunt man of 62, bearded and bespectacled, stares at us through sad eyes that reveal his pain. On the day in late March that Rabbi Arthur Schneier visited him in his Cuban jail, he wore a light blue shirt, a white undershirt, and a tallit over his shoulders as he and Schneier posed for a picture.
He is Alan Gross, an international development specialist and a married father of two girls, and his incarceration since late 2009 in a maximum security military hospital facility in Havana reminds us that – while Cuba’s leadership may have passed from Fidel Castro to brother Raul – the regime retains its half-century-old aversion to freedom, and its propensity for cruelty.
Gross, from Bethesda, Maryland, was on a democracy building project that was funded by the United States Agency for International Development when he was arrested for bringing satellite and other communications equipment into Cuba.
Held without charges for 14 months, he was tried in early 2011 for “acts to undermine” Cuba’s “integrity and independence,” quickly convicted of partaking in a “subversive project of the U.S. government that aimed to destroy the revolution through the use of communications systems out of the control of authorities,” and sentenced to 15 years in prison.
To be sure, Gross misrepresented himself when he entered Cuba on a tourist visa, and he brought in the communications equipment without a license, according to news reports. He was helping Cuba’s Jewish community gain better access to the internet.
Fine. But, only in an authoritarian state is access to public information labeled a subversive activity.
Autocrats fear information, increasingly so as it crosses national borders in real time. They fear that the stirrings of freedom and democracy in one part of the world can plant the seeds of revolutionary ideas in the people over which they rule.
That’s why the autocrats in Beijing, Tehran, and elsewhere monitor the internet and social media so closely and limit their availability so tightly.
As for Gross, he hasn’t exactly enjoyed his time in the Castro paradise.
Since his arrest in December of 2009, he reportedly has lost about 100 pounds in weight and suffers from depression and other serious ailments while trying to cope with his absence from life-changing events back home:
- His 26-year-old eldest daughter’s diagnosis of breast cancer in August of 2010;
- His 89-year-old mother’s diagnosis of inoperable cancer in February of 2011;
- His daughter’s double mastectomy in early 2011; and
- His wife’s surgery for an undisclosed ailment last summer.
He’s been gone, but not forgotten.
His wife, Judy Gross, has waged a tireless campaign on his behalf, rallying the Jewish community to his cause, urging Pope Benedict XVI to press his case when visiting Cuba late last month, pressuring President Obama to do more, and working recently with the public relations powerhouse firm Burson-Marsteller.
The Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington has devoted much time and effort to freeing Gross, gathering signatures from leading Jewish organizations around the country for petitions to top Cuban officials and the Pope while spearheading weekly protests in front of Cuba’s embassy in Washington.
In February, Senators Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, and Richard Shelby, an Alabama
Republican, met with Raul Castro and appealed for Gross’ release. “I said if he’d like us to take this issue off his hand, we’d be happy to take Mr. Gross on the plane when we left,” Leahy told the New York Times. “He basically said, ‘Nice try.’”
Senator Chris Coons, a Delaware Democrat, was among four other senators who traveled with Leahy and Shelby to Cuba. He met with other top Cuban officials but, when they sought progress on such issues as trade and immigration, Coons said Gross’ release must come first.
Two days before Christmas, Raul Castro released nearly 3,000 political prisoners. Gross remains in jail, however, apparently a pawn in Havana’s effort to convince Washington to release five men who were convicted in 2001 of spying on anti-Castro exiles. But, Gross was no spy, so Cuba’s effort to link the cases makes no sense.
Isn’t it time for Havana to declare victory, take the high road, and release this long-suffering man, and, more broadly, set Cuba on a new course?