Alan Gross: Castro's prisoner
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    New Jewish Push To Free Alan Gross

    New Jewish Push To Free Alan Gross
    As Diplomacy Falters, Wife Pleads for Release From Cuban Jail
    By Nathan Guttman
    Published November 21, 2011, issue of November 25, 2011.

    Washington — An emotional Judy Gross recently pleaded with thousands of
    Jewish community leaders to help free her husband from a prison in Cuba,
    marking a public shift in what has been, up to now, a strategy of quiet
    diplomacy on his behalf.

    "Let the Cuban government know that the Jewish community wants Alan
    home," Gross implored her audience at the November 8 closing session of
    the annual conference of the Jewish Federations of North America.

    Her husband, Alan Gross, a contractor for the U.S. Agency for
    International Development, is serving a 15-year sentence after being
    accused of crimes against the Cuban state for seeking to bring banned
    Internet equipment to Cuba's Jewish community.
    courtesy of gross family

    "Alan's only intention was to help the small Jewish communities in
    Cuba," she said, "nothing more."

    The Gross case has proven to be one of the more difficult diplomatic
    challenges facing Jewish leaders, who would like to help free the
    61-year-old suburban Washington, D.C. resident. On the surface, it is a
    case of an American Jew imprisoned for seeking to aid Jews living under
    a communist government. But in contrast to the black-and-white approach
    American Jews took in trying to aid Soviet Jewry, Cuba experts and
    Jewish activists see the need for a highly nuanced strategy. Unlike Jews
    in the old Soviet Union, Cuba's 2,000-strong Jewish community enjoys
    religious freedom and positive, if wary, relations with the ruling
    regime of Raul Castro. They are also free to emigrate to Israel, with
    which Cuba has unofficial but productive relations.

    Until now, Gross' family and friends chose not to focus on Gross's
    Jewish identity, or on his work with Havana's Jewish community. Since
    his detention by Cuban authorities nearly two years ago, his supporters
    have feared such an emphasis would hurt the cause and could cause more
    trouble for the Cuban Jewish community.

    The strategy changed when they realized they weren't getting closer to
    winning Gross's freedom.

    "The [American] Jewish community is getting more involved because we
    haven't seen movement on this issue," said Ron Halber, executive
    director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater
    Washington. "It is fair to say the Jewish community has gone beyond the
    tipping point on whether to get involved or not."

    Weighing in on behalf of Gross also required the Jewish community to
    walk a political and diplomatic tightrope.

    Gross was sent to Cuba under a contract with USAID as part of a program
    funded under the 1996 Helms-Burton Act. The controversial statute
    strengthens sanctions against Cuba and outlines measures meant to
    undermine the country's communist regime.

    But even as they motivate Jews to get involved in pushing for Gross's
    release, his advocates have chosen so far to avoid taking a stand on the
    Helms-Burton law and on the issue of a broader American-Cuban
    rapprochement. It is a shift that some believe could expedite Gross's
    release. But this is seen as a political nonstarter, especially in an
    election year in which President Obama has to worry about the
    Cuban-American vote in Florida, a crucial swing state.

    The campaign to win Gross's release now includes weekly interfaith
    vigils held outside the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, letters
    sent by Jewish leaders to members of Congress and a set of national
    grassroots events planned for the weekend of December 3, which marks the
    second anniversary of Gross's arrest.

    "The community seems ready to help us in the fight," Judy Gross wrote in
    a November 15 email exchange with the Forward. "Our hope is that the
    Jewish community will use its incredibly strong global voice to tell the
    Cuban government that we want Alan home now."

    Gross's family and lawyers say the veteran aid worker's mission in Cuba
    was to provide unfiltered Internet access to members of the Jewish
    community to help them better communicate and to learn about Jewish life
    outside the island. But Cuba had declared that any action taken under
    the Helms-Burton law would be viewed as an act against its sovereignty.

    Gross, a social worker and international development expert who was
    employed by a private firm under contract to USAID, is widely described
    as relatively naive and anything but a cloak-and-dagger type. Since his
    arrest at Havana Airport in 2009, Gross has reportedly lost nearly 100
    pounds. He now suffers from various medical conditions. Back home, his
    daughter and mother are fighting cancer. Initially, leaders of Cuba's
    Jewish community distanced themselves from Gross, but later they began
    helping him in prison.

    The past two years have seen flurries of diplomatic activity around
    Gross, but little progress has been made.

    According to an October Associated Press report, Cuba, in talks with
    U.S. officials and intermediaries such as former New Mexico Governor
    Bill Richardson, has proposed to exchange Gross for members of the Cuban
    Five, a group of agents convicted in 2001 for trying to spy on U.S.
    military installations and American Cuban expatriates in Miami. The
    United States has rejected pardons for the four who remain in jail. But
    it has reportedly offered to press a Miami federal court to allow one of
    their number, who has been released on parole, to finish his probation
    period in Cuba, in exchange for Gross' release. Cuba has rejected this.

    Gross himself appears to view the possibility of a prisoner swap
    favorably, especially after Israel agreed to release hundreds of
    imprisoned Palestinians in exchange for captured soldier Gilad Shalit.
    Rabbi David Schneyer, founder of Am Kolel Jewish Renewal Community of
    Greater Washington, recently visited Gross in prison and wrote in a
    report, "Having learned about the recent swap of Gilad Shalit for more
    than 1,000 imprisoned Palestinians, [Gross] felt that the U.S. and Cuba
    could do the same for him and the Cuban Five."

    Julia Sweig, director for Latin America at the Council on Foreign
    Relations and a leading expert on Cuban-American relations, said a
    prisoner swap seems unlikely. She said the United States could discuss a
    shift in its relations with Cuba that would also include the release of
    Gross — if it had the political stomach for it.

    "But there is no political will in the U.S. government when it comes to
    Cuba," she said. "Gross is a victim of the broader U.S.-Cuba paralysis,
    and here the blame goes squarely to American politicians."

    She cited Cuban-American lawmakers such as Democratic Senator Robert
    Menendez of New Jersey, Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida and
    Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican, who use their positions
    on the House and Senate foreign relations committees to block attempts
    to change American policy toward Cuba. State Department officials also
    seek to avoid the confrontational issue.

    Obama has shown little appetite to take bold steps to improve ties with
    Havana. Political analysts say he can ill afford to risk angering Cuban
    voters when Florida is a linchpin to his re-election strategy.

    Meanwhile, Jewish individuals and organizations with close ties to
    Cuban-American lawmakers have been reluctant to push them to ease their
    opposition to negotiating with Cuba.

    "People in the Cuban Jewish community feel very sad and want to see him
    released," said former community member Arturo Lopez-Levy, who left the
    country 10 years ago. "But people," he added, "feel it was totally
    irresponsible for the USAID to send him there."

    Contact Nathan Guttman at