APs Alan Gross story could hamper his release from Cuban jail

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For the Jews of Cuba, it was the ultimate Internet connection.

The high-tech equipment that U.S. contractor Alan Gross brought with him to Cuba in 2009 to help connect local Jews to the Internet reportedly included a SIM card that makes it almost impossible to track satellite signals and is generally unavailable to civilians, even in the United States.

That was one of the revelations in an Associated Press report earlier this month that has exacerbated concerns that Cuba will hang tough on its stated determination not to release Gross, a 62-year-old Jewish man from Maryland who was in Cuba to do work for the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID. Gross is serving a 15-year prison sentence in Cuba for crimes described as “acts against the integrity of the state.”

Alan and Judy Gross at the Western Wall in the spring of 2005. photo/courtesy of the Gross family

Yet the news report, apparently based on mission reports by Gross, helps reinforce the claim that Gross, his family, his employer and the State Department have made all along — that Gross’ mission was straightforward and not at all nefarious: He wanted to hook up Cuba’s Jews with their brethren worldwide.

The AP article “doesn’t change what we’re doing,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “We never argued the matters that were raised” regarding Gross’ activities, he said.

According to the AP story, Gross understood the dangers he faced. That is evident both in his reports — he called his enterprise a “risky business in no uncertain terms” in one memo — and his actions. He recruited Jewish tourists to help bring in the devices, and the most damaging evidence, according to the AP, was the sophisticated SIM card he had in his possession.

Yet the story also makes clear that Gross, who was arrested on Dec. 3, 2009, hardly fits the profile of a spy, which is how Cuban President Raul Castro described him.

“Alan Gross was working as a contractor for the U.S. government to promote democracy in Cuba,” said William Daroff, the Washington director for Jewish Federations of North America. “He was convicted by a court in a country that does not respect the rule of law. His now over two years in a Cuban prison is unjust and we demand the Cuban government release him and that the American government use all of its influence to bring him home.”

The JFNA and the Jewish Community Relations Council in Washington have taken the lead in pushing publicly for Gross’ release, using online petitions and vigils outside the offices of Cuban representatives.

Gross is said to be ill, having lost 100 pounds of the 250 pounds he weighed before his arrest. His daughter and mother have suffered bouts with cancer during his incarceration.

Those close to the case say privately that the AP’s revelations would not be news to the Cuban authorities. However, they are concerned that making them public will inhibit any Cuban willingness to release Gross.

The AP story describes Gross’ mission as setting up hundreds of Cubans — particularly the island’s 1,500 Jews — with Wi-Fi hotspots for unrestricted Internet access as part of democracy promotion by USAID, a State Department program.

“He did nothing wrong other than to connect peaceful non-dissident Jewish communities to the Internet,” said Steven O’Connor, the spokesman for Development Alternatives Inc., the USAID contractor that hired Gross.

The Cuban government, however, considers USAID’s democracy promotion campaign as a political weapon aimed against its regime.

Gross’ wife, Judy, addressed the AP story’s claims for the first time Feb. 19 during a breakfast meeting at Congregation Chizuk Amuno in Baltimore.

“To suggest that Alan had any ulterior motive other than to help Cuba’s small Jewish community improve its access to information through the Internet and Intranet is categorically false,” she said. “Unfortunately, in countries like Cuba, the free flow of information is forbidden, and therefore it should come as no surprise that Alan had to be careful and discreet while he was in Cuba.”

Judy Gross described her husband’s mission as setting up unfettered Internet access to communicate with Jews outside Cuba and an Intranet so the communities — some in remote areas — could communicate with one another, “allowing them to share things like recipes, prayers and even sports scores.”

Gross’ backers still hold out hope that the Cubans may consider his release, although news from the last year is not good; his lawyers have exhausted the Cuban appeals system, up to and including a plea to President Castro.

Additionally, the reported Cuban request in exchange for Gross’ release — the release of the “Cuban Five,” U.S.-based Cuban intelligence officers arrested in 1998 and convicted in 2001 — would be difficult at the best of times. In an election year, it is seen as impossible given the anti-Castro sentiments prevailing in Florida, a swing state.

Hoenlein said the Presidents Conference is continuing its appeal to figures and countries that may have influence with Cuba.

USAID spokesmen did not return multiple requests for comment. State Department officials, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, have said that securing Gross’ release is a priority.

Ron Kampeas

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