Alan Gross: Castro's prisoner
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    WikiLeaks: U.S. visited jailed American after Cuban lawyer

    Posted on Thursday, 09.01.11

    WikiLeaks: U.S. visited jailed American after Cuban lawyer
    By Juan O. Tamayo

    A U.S. government subcontractor spent 25 days in a Havana jail before
    receiving his first visit from a U.S. diplomat, but he already had met
    with a Cuban lawyer involved in the case of five Havana spies that Cuba
    wants freed from U.S. prisons, according to classified U.S. diplomatic

    The cables, written by U.S. diplomats in Havana, provide previously
    unknown details in the case of Alan P. , whose imprisonment has
    become the most serious impediment to date of the Obama administration's
    declared desire to warm relations with Cuba.

    They also show Gross reporting that he had lost 30 pounds during his 25
    days in , and speaking only in vague terms about the
    semi-clandestine mission that landed him in the grips of Cuba's
    political , the General Directorate of State Security.

    The cables were among the more than 250,000 U.S. diplomatic dispatches
    that WikiLeaks provided to McClatchy and other news organization.
    McClatchy owns El Nuevo Herald and The Miami Herald.

    Gross, 62 and a veteran international development specialist from
    Potomac, Md., was Dec. 3 2009, after smuggling a satellite
    telephone to Cuba's tiny Jewish community so it could independently
    access the .

    He was working for Development Associates International, a suburban
    Washington firm contracted by the U.S. Agency for International
    Development as part of a $20 million campaign to assist civil society on
    the island.

    Cuba brands the USAID programs as subversive, and Gross is now serving a
    15-year sentence in a Havana military on charges of violating
    its "independence and territorial integrity." His family and the U.S.
    government have urged Havana to free him as a humanitarian gesture
    because his wife, daughter and mother are all in ill .

    One dispatch sent just hours after the U.S. consul general in Havana at
    the time, Martha Melzow, first visited Gross for an hour Dec. 28 in
    Villa Marista, a detention center for investigations of political
    crimes, showed him concerned about his uncertain situation.

    He reported suffering from high blood pressure, which he did not have
    before his arrest, a duodenal ulcer and high levels of uric acid in his
    urine, the cable noted. Gross wanted to stop taking one of the five
    prescription drugs he was taking because "it was affecting his
    clear-headedness and balance."

    Gross added "that he had fallen down and also fainted, and that he
    needed to stand up from a sitting position slowly," the dispatch added.
    "He had lost 30 pounds … observed that he was given lettuce and fresh
    fruit to eat and joked that good health seemed to be a very important
    concept for the prison."

    Eleven months later, his wife reported that he had lost 90 pounds.

    Cuban officials had not physically abused him and were treating him
    "with respect," though his interrogation had been "very intense at
    first," lasting an average of two hours a day, Gross told Melzow.

    His cell had a TV and a fan, but he "expressed concern about having to
    share it with two other men, the cable noted, giving no further details.

    Gross also reported that the day of the consul general's visit was the
    first day "he had been allowed to use a belt and shoelaces," the cable
    added. Those restrictions apparently are part of Cuban prisons'
    precautions against suicide attempts.

    Underlining the sensitive nature of the case, Gross told the U.S. consul
    that Cuban authorities had allowed him to telephone his wife Judy on
    Dec. 6 — just three days after his arrest — and again on Dec. 23. Villa
    Marista prisoners are seldom if ever allowed to call their families.

    Told that his family had hired a U.S lawyer to represent him, Gross
    "pulled the business card of a Cuban attorney that had come to visit
    him," the cable noted. Villa Marista prisoners can be there for months
    before they see a lawyer.

    The cable identified the lawyer as Armanda Nuria Piñero Sierra, who also
    represents the families of five Cuban spies held in U.S. prisons. She
    was later hired as his lawyer and handled his trial and appeals.

    Gross' arrest sparked almost immediate speculation that Cuba wanted to
    swap him for the five, convicted in 2001 on charges of conspiracy to
    commit espionage against U.S. military installations.

    The Cuban government claims the five were in South Florida to monitor
    militants, and has maintained a long-running international
    campaign portraying them as "heroes" and demanding their release.

    Gross was apparently already aware of the possibility of a swap when he
    met with the consul general. He asked her "if his case might be compared
    in any way to that of the Cuban Five. The CG did not respond," the cable

    Gross — or perhaps the writer of the dispatch — was much more discreet
    on his work in Cuba for USAID. It is unclear from the cables what U.S.
    diplomats knew of Gross' activities before his arrest.

    "When queried by the CG as to what he was charged with, Gross said quote
    contraband end quote with no further clarification," the dispatch reported.

    Gross also told Melzow that anyone who searched his name on the Internet
    could learn about his 30-year career in development work. He added that
    "GOC (government of Cuba) officials quote knew everything end quote
    before he was taken into custody," the cable noted.

    It was not clear if he was referring to his experience or his USAID
    mission to Cuba. Some of those missions are semi-secret in hopes of
    bypassing Cuban efforts to block them, but after his arrest Havana
    broadcast several TV programs showing its spies had penetrated some of
    the USAID programs.

    Gross also "wanted to know if the CG knew about his activities. She said
    she did not," the cable noted. He also asked "if there were other
    Americans in the same situation, i.e., other Amcits (American citizens)
    entering Cuba on the same type of program who had been detained."

    The cable reported that Melzow did not respond, but there's been no
    reports of other USAID contractors detained in Cuba.

    The cable added that Gross "wants his name kept out of the press" and
    that his personal effects at the time of his arrest included a "CityBank
    password decoder" but did not explain its use. Computer experts
    consulted by El Nuevo Herald said they had no idea what that could be.

    The WikiLeaks cables, which are classified no higher than "secret,"
    barely speculate on why police arrested Gross — and not any of the other
    USAID contractors identified in the Havanan programs.

    Perhaps Cuba wanted to pressure Washington to halt the USAID programs,
    one cable noted. Another hinted at the possibility that former ruler
    Fidel ordered the arrest to assert his lingering power over the

    But the cables sent by the U.S. Interests Section in Havana — it's not
    an embassy because the two countries don't have full diplomatic
    relations — show that Gross' arrest on Dec. 3, 2009, came amid
    heightened tensions.

    One cable dated Dec. 14 reported that Havana officials had just days
    before complained to U.S. diplomats that the U.S. Coast Guard had
    violated Cuban territorial waters while helping a stranded American vessel.

    It added that Cuba also had complained that U.S. diplomats participated
    in activities on Day Dec. 9-10. The U.S. mission
    replied that its diplomats merely monitored the events.

    The mission's security officer also reported a recent increase in
    "suspected surveillance'' of Interests Section officials, the cable
    added, and the staff was "advised to exercise caution and consider fully
    … the potential that a planned activity could be misconstrued willfully
    by the GOC."