Jewish technology expert being held in Cuban prison

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Alan Gross has been about communications all his life: the call-mom-everyday son, the family news-breaker, the message guy for Jewish groups, the get-out-the-vote enthusiast for candidate Barack Obama.

Now, however, Gross, 60, of Potomac, Md., has been languishing for three months in a Cuban high-security prison, and Cuban officials allegedly monitor his rare phone conversations.

“He spoke with my sister-in-law on a few occasions with someone standing by him,” Bonnie Rubinstein, his sister, said in a March 8 interview. “He was guarded, he tried to impart that he was OK.”

Alan Gross visits the Western Wall with his wife, Judy, in 2005. photo/jta/courtesy of the gross family

In fact, he’s not so OK, Rubinstein said, correcting herself: Gross’ call last week to his wife, Judy, was to ask for the medication he needs for his gout and that is unavailable in Cuba.

“We’re hoping he got the medication,” said Rubinstein, a director of early childhood education at Temple Shalom in Dallas. “He lost 52 pounds. We’re very worried about him.”

Gross, a technology contractor, was arrested Dec. 3 as he prepared to return from Cuba, where he was completing work on behalf of the U.S. government. He has not been charged, but leading Cuban figures — including President Raul Castro — have accused him of being part of a plot to undermine the government.

After weeks of taking a quiet approach to secure Gross’ release, his family and friends launched a public campaign that is spreading to Jewish communities across the United States, attracting the support of lawmakers and high-profile media outlets. It kicked off last month when Judy Gross issued a video appeal for the release of her husband of 40 years. The Grosses have two adult daughters.

“Alan has done nothing wrong and we want him home,” she said in the Feb. 18 video. “We’re hoping that U.S. officials and Cuban officials can get together and mutually agree on a way to get him home.”

Up to that point, Judy Gross added, she had been able to have only three brief conversations with her husband.

The video marked the family’s decision to go public after several weeks of hoping to secure his release behind closed doors. Remarks by Cuban leaders suggesting that Gross was a spy were a factor in the change, said Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), the chairman of the House of Representatives Latin America subcommittee, who has met with the family.

“I’m going to continue to make noise about it. It’s the only thing that can get him released,” said Engel, who raised the matter last month with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton when she testified before the Foreign Affairs Committee.

The campaign emphasizes Gross’ Jewish commitment.

“He is helping the Jewish community [in Cuba] improve communications and Internet access,” Judy Gross says in the video. Later, after outlining his anti-poverty activism, she adds that “Alan also loves the Jewish community. He’s been involved for as long as I can remember.”

Gross was active as a young man in the B’nai B’rith Youth Organization and worked several years in the 1980s for the Greater Washington Jewish Federation.

In a statement, the State Department said Gross was working on “a program designed to play a positive constructive role in Cuban society and governance by helping Cuban citizens to gain access they seek to information readily available to citizens elsewhere in the world.” Such projects are banned in Cuba.

The last visit American diplomats were allowed with Gross was on Feb. 2.

The State Department did not specify Gross’ work in Cuba, but a backgrounder distributed by Gross’ family, business associates and supporters said, “Alan was helping Cuba’s tiny Jewish community set up an intranet so that they could communicate amongst themselves and with other Jewish communities abroad, and providing them the ability to access the Internet.

In her video, Judy Gross said her husband had visited more than 50 countries, helping not only to promote Internet access but also to build schools and promote employment.

“His work has had a positive impact in the lives of people in over 50 countries, including the West Bank, Gaza, Iraq, Afghanistan, Africa and Haiti,” it says.

Friends and Cuba watchers say Gross is a victim of Cuban resentment of U.S. human rights outreach in the island nation.

“The Castro regime is trying to put pressure on the United States,” Engel said. “If Raul Castro wants to normalize relations with the United States, this is a heckuva way to do it.”

Ron Kampeas

Ron Kampeas is the D.C. bureau chief at the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.