Florida Keys News
Monday, May 5, 2014
City may join effort to free man in Cuban jail

At a time when the White House has softened American travel restrictions to Cuba, a former contractor says he is trapped in a Cold War-era prison sentence that is killing him slowly.

Alan Gross, 65, is serving a 15-year sentence in Havana for bringing satellite phones into the communist nation under a program funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Former President Jimmy Carter, 66 U.S. senators, Secretary of State John Kerry and various American Jewish organizations have all lobbied on behalf of Gross.

Now, an elected Key West leader wants the tiny island city, which is closer to Havana than Miami, to take a stand.

Sponsored by City Commissioner Tony Yaniz, the proposed resolution would state that Key West "implores the Cuban government to release Alan Gross as an act of good faith that rises above political philosophies and agendas."

Commissioners meet at 6 p.m. Tuesday at Old City Hall with the item near the top of their agenda -- beneath other proposals that the city 1.) Urge Southwest Airlines to continue air service at the Key West airport and 2.) That commissioners reappoint John Parks to the Housing Authority Board.

Yaniz's proposal urges Cuban President Raul Castro to immediately release Gross and return him to his family in the U.S.

"The Cuban government's release of Alan Gross would serve to demonstrate to the world that Cuba can be strong while simultaneously showing the compassion and grace that marks enlightened societies," the proposed resolution states.

In contrast, Gross calls his predicament "a shameful ordeal."

Gross has repeatedly asked President Barack Obama to intervene on his behalf, calling his living conditions "inhumane" and calling out both countries -- which haven't had formal diplomatic talks since 1961 -- for "mistruths, deceptions, and inaction."

Gross spends 23 hours a day in a small room at a Havana military hospital with two other inmates, his family said. The lights are kept on 24/7; food is limited.

"His single hour outside each day takes place in a small courtyard enclosed by high cement walls, which block his view of everything but a small patch of sky," they posted online.

No more birthdays here

Gross isn't the only one suffering, said his wife of 43 years, Judy Gross. Over the past five years, she lost their home due to losing the family's primary income.

One of their daughters battled breast cancer while Gross' mother received an inoperable lung cancer diagnosis.

He missed his oldest daughter's wedding.

"I worry he will not be able to carry on much longer," Judy Gross posted on the family's website, bringalanhome.org "After years of inaction, I'm imploring President Obama to intervene personally on Alan's behalf and bring him home to our family."

On Friday, Gross marked his 65th birthday in captivity by announcing he did not plan to live to age 66 due to his deteriorating health.

A nine-day hunger strike in April also focused fresh limelight on the prisoner who has spent several years pleading with U.S. officials, even Obama personally, to take action.

"I find myself asking the same question -- why?" Gross wrote in a Dec. 3 letter to Obama pleading for help. "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."

Cuba's trade offer

Cuban officials have repeatedly said they would "resolve" Gross's imprisonment in exchange for the release of three Cuban spies still serving prison terms for spying on South Florida military installations and exiles opposed to its communist system.

According to trial testimony, the ring tried to infiltrate the headquarters of the U.S. Southern Command and military installations in the Florida Keys.

The three prisoners Cuba wants in return for Gross are the remaining members of the "Cuban Five," convicted in 2001 of spying under orders from then-President Fidel Castro. Since 2011, two have been released and deported to Cuba, where they are considered heroes.

Obama's administration has rejected any trades.

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., has said Gross is a "hostage being held captive by a state sponsor of terrorism."

In a Dec. 3 statement to mark Gross' fourth anniversary of imprisonment, Rubio said, "Instead of considering more unilateral concessions to the Castro regime that enrich and help fund its repressive machine, the U.S. should pursue meaningful measures to secure Mr. Gross' immediate, unconditional release."

Crime or human aid?

Gross, a Maryland native with a wife and two daughters in their mid to late 20s, said he was helping provide better Internet access to Cuba's Jewish community.

But Cuban officials said he broke their laws by providing equipment that could allow its citizens to bypass the government's controls and Internet restictions.

Arrested and detained in 2009, Gross was found guilty in 2011 of acts against the Cuban state.

In November 2012, his family sued the subcontractor Development Alternatives Inc., which held the $6 million contract Gross was working under, seeking $60 million in damages.

DAI sent Gross into Cuba on five semi-covert trips unprepared and uninformed of the risks involved, the suit claimed. His family says Gross had no idea that distributing anything funded by USAID was a crime in Cuba.

By May 2013, DAI had settled the suit for an undisclosed amount, but within days a federal judge dismissed the claim against the U.S. government.

Meanwhile, imprisonment has left Gross frail and in failing health. He has lost 110 pounds, developed degenerative arthritis in his leg and is suffering from depression, Judy Gross said.

Eleven years remain on his sentence.

Gross said May 2 is the last birthday he will mark in Cuba "one way or the other," according to a recent online post.

"It means what it means," he is quoted as saying. "It's not a threat, it's a statement of hope, a statement of determination and a statement of impatience."

gfilosa@keysnews.com

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