Tough year for wife of man detained as spy in Cuba
Posted on Thursday, 12.02.10
Tough year for wife of man detained as spy in Cuba
By JESSICA GRESKO
WASHINGTON — In the year her American husband has been detained in Cuba, accused of spying for the U.S., Judy Gross has been forced to sell the family home in Maryland and move into a small apartment in Washington. Her younger daughter, distraught and crying as her father’s birthday approached, crashed and totaled her car. Her older daughter has been diagnosed with breast cancer.
When he left for Cuba last December, his wife says he planned to spend just 10 days there helping to set up Internet access for members of the country’s small Jewish population, believed to number about 1,500.
“Every morning I wake up and for a few seconds it’s like a normal morning, and then I remember … he’s gone,” Judy Gross told The Associated Press in an interview.
His detention has become a sticking point in relations between the U.S. and Cuba, two countries that have been at odds for decades. U.S. officials have denied claims he is a spy and said no progress can be made on relations until Gross is released.
His work was part of a program of the U.S. Agency for International Development, a government agency that provides economic and humanitarian assistance worldwide but has also been criticized by Cuba for seeking to promote democratic change on the island.
The specifics of what he was doing or what he might have done to upset the Cuban government are unclear.
Judy Gross is adamant that her husband is not a spy. After all, she says, why would the U.S. government pick someone who didn’t know Spanish?
“He’s a humanitarian, an idealist, and probably was naive and maybe not understanding enough of what he was getting himself into … that he could be arrested,” she said.
The Cuban government did not respond to requests for comment, but officials have said previously that there is nothing unusual about how long he has spent in jail without being charged.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Judy Gross was meeting with State Department officials Thursday afternoon to discuss the case.
“We will continue to use all available channels to urge the Cuban government to show humanitarian compassion and put an end to Mr. Gross’ long and unjustifiable ordeal,” Crowley said.
Judy Gross doesn’t know what he might have put in his suitcase, whether he had electronic equipment that could have angered the Cuban government, which keeps strict control over communication on the island. But she says he never went anywhere without his laptop and a cell phone.
His wife says he was working at a Jewish community center in Havana, helping Jewish groups on the island communicate with one another and get access to the Internet so they could look at Wikipedia and online prayer books. The visit was his fifth to help the same group, Judy Gross said.
The leaders of Cuba’s two main Jewish groups say they haven’t worked with Alan Gross, who is Jewish. While it is possible he was working with one of the other Jewish groups scattered across the island, they represent very small numbers of people.
Adela Dworin, president of Havana’s Temple Beth Shalom and Cuba’s largest Jewish organization, the Jewish Community House, told The Associated Press it’s possible Gross came to the center as one of hundreds of foreign visitors it receives each year. But she said she doesn’t remember meeting him and he certainly was not doing any work with her group.
Dworin said many visitors bring donations – medicine for a community pharmacy, books, DVDs, computer games, food for religious festivals – but she stressed that the group would not accept any contraband equipment.
“We have all the necessary media to communicate with the entire Jewish world,” Dworin said. “We are able to communicate freely.”
Gross was a subcontractor for an economic development organization called Development Alternatives Inc. of Bethesda, Md., that was working for the U.S. government.
In a statement earlier this year, the group said Gross was working with a peaceful non-dissident civic group it did not identify to improve its communication capabilities. The company said his activities included distributing basic information technology equipment such as cell phones and laptops.
For now, Gross is being held at the Cuban military hospital, where he shares a three-person room. To keep busy, he writes a lot, including letters to family and friends. Judy Gross, a psychotherapist, says in some letters he sounds depressed or angry, in others cheerful. Last week she sent him a letter with a menorah since Hanukkah began Wednesday night.
“He didn’t know it was Hanukkah,” she said. “You know, days fall into nights when you are stuck inside.”
Gross passes time by reading books and magazines his wife sends. He loves the Economist and The Atlantic and Washingtonian magazine.
He isn’t allowed outside very often, but he exercises. On Friday nights he takes out a picture that his wife sent of a group of friends celebrating the Jewish Sabbath and says the prayers they would say together. Often, it’s also the night he calls his wife.
The first six months his jailers kept the lights on all night, and he couldn’t sleep, but that eventually changed.
He has learned some Spanish, but is still not fluent. This summer he was finally allowed a small air conditioner and television, on which he watches Cuban baseball. His jailers also gave him the stringed Cuban instrument, which he uses to play music with them. And on Thanksgiving the cook made him a turkey, serving it in a Cuban style, with beans.
“He was really grateful for that,” Judy Gross said.
When she was finally able to visit him for three days over the summer, she was shocked by his sunken cheeks. He was 50 pounds overweight when he left, but in the past year he has lost 90 pounds, leaving him emaciated, she said.
Most of the visit was spent at the hospital, but Judy Gross was not allowed to see her husband’s room. The second day, they were taken to a house outside of Havana with a view of the ocean. They had some time alone, but felt they were always being watched.
Judy Gross doesn’t know what happens next, though she would like the U.S. and Cuban governments to sit down and work things out.
Gloria Berbena, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, which Washington maintains instead of an embassy, said that she knew of no new developments in the case, though officials continue to press the Cuban government to release Gross.
Judy Gross says both countries seem to be using her husband as a pawn, and she said she’d really like the White House to get involved.
“I feel like: Well, he’s still there,” she said. “In that sense, we’re not any closer than we were a year ago.”
Associated Press Writers Paul Haven and Peter Orsi in Havana and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.