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 firstname.lastname@example.org