Alan Gross: Castro's prisoner
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    Gross advocates press for consideration of some Cuban Five demands

    Gross advocates press for consideration of some Cuban Five demands
    By Ron Kampeas · May 21, 2012

    WASHINGTON (JTA) -- Advocates for Alan Gross say talk of a trade with
    the "Cuban Five" is a non-starter, but acknowledge hopes that the Obama
    administration will consider lower-level concessions for the five Cuban
    spies in exchange for Cuban considerations for the jailed American.

    Insiders say that Gross' advocates want the U.S. government to consider,
    among other measures, more family visits for the Cuban Five, agents who
    were arrested in 1998 and convicted in 2001 on espionage-related
    charges, and the permanent return home for the one among them who is now
    out of jail and serving probation.

    The Cuban government recently came closer than ever to making explicit
    that the fate of the Cuban Five factors into its considerations of
    whether to release Gross, the State Department contractor who is in
    jail on a conviction stemming from his efforts to connect Cuba's small
    Jewish community to the Internet.

    Gross, who is Jewish, was arrested in 2009 and sentenced last year to 15
    years in prison.

    "We have made clear to the U.S. government that we are ready to have a
    negotiation in order to try and find a solution, a humanitarian solution
    to Mr. Gross' case on a reciprocal basis," Josefina Vidal, the top
    official in the Cuban Foreign Ministry handling North America, said in a
    May 10 interview on CNN.

    Vidal would not offer specifics, but prompted by interviewer Wolf
    Blitzer, she said the Cuban Five were a concern.

    "Cuba has legitimate concerns, humanitarian concerns related to the
    situation of the Cuban Five," she said.

    The State Department immediately rejected such reciprocity.

    "There is no equivalence between these situations," Victoria Nuland, the
    State Department spokeswoman, said in remarks to the press the day after
    the interview. "On the one hand, you have convicted spies in the United
    States, and on the other hand, you have an assistance worker who should
    never have been locked up in the first place. So we are not
    contemplating any release of the Cuban Five, and we are not
    contemplating any trade.

    "The continuing imprisonment of Alan Gross is deplorable, it is wrong,
    and it's an affront to human decency. And the Cuban government needs to
    do the right thing."

    On background, a source apprised of the dealings among Gross' advocates,
    the U.S. government and the Cubans says that Gross' advocates are
    willing to press for visits by the wives of two of the Cuban Five, Rene
    Gonzalez and Gerardo Hernandez. The U.S. has refused visas multiple
    times for the women, and Amnesty International has taken up their cause.

    Another possible "give," according to the source: a permanent return to
    Cuba for Gonzalez, who is out of jail and serving probation in the Miami

    It's not clear what the Cubans would offer in return for such
    concessions, but it is likely they would draw protests from the
    Cuban-American community, including among stalwart pro-Israel lawmakers
    such as Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), the powerful chairwoman of
    the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, who has
    rejected any leniency for the Cuban Five.

    Ronald Halber, who heads the Jewish Community Relations Council of
    Greater Washington and has directed much of the national activism on
    Gross' behalf, said he understands the "intensity" of the Cuban-American
    community's response, but said that President Obama also should take
    into account the national interest.

    "I do not believe that U.S. policy to Cuba can be held hostage by the
    Cuban community in Miami," he said. "It's American national interests
    that are at stake. They should be part of the conversation, I understand
    the intensity, although this intensity is more among the older
    generation, not the younger generation. Our government has to do what is
    in our interests."

    Gross' family and his advocates in the organized Jewish community
    emphasize their agreement with Nuland's premise: There is no equivalency
    between a contractor installing and training others in the use of
    communications equipment and five spies believed to be instrumental in
    the 1996 shooting of two small aircraft leafleting Cuba with
    pro-democracy messages, resulting in the deaths of four Cuban-American

    Additionally, Jewish leaders dismiss the notion of the release of five
    loyalists to the regime of the Castro brothers, reviled in the
    influential Cuban-American community, as simply not worth addressing.
    Three of the five were sentenced to life and one to 19 years.

    Gonzalez, sentenced to 15 years, was released last year on a three-year

    "We're not in a position to negotiate that and I don't think the U.S.
    government is inclined to do so," Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive
    vice-chairman of the Conference of Presidents of American Jewish
    Organizations, the community's foreign policy umbrella, told JTA.

    Instead, he said, "We are continuing to press the case in various fora
    directly and indirectly."

    That included the Presidents Conference's recent requests that Pope
    Benedict XVI raise Gross' plight during his March Cuba trip.

    Vidal's ambiguity in her interview with Blitzer suggested that there may
    be measures short of release that would invite Cuban reciprocity on
    Gross' behalf.

    "I have to tell you that the situation and the conditions of the
    detention of Mr. Alan Gross are very much different from the conditions"
    of the Cuban Five, who claim to have spent periods in solitary
    confinement, she said.

    Vidal noted that the mother of one died without seeing him since his
    imprisonment, and the wives of two have not been permitted to visit them
    in the United States.

    Gross, who is held in a medical facility, has been visited by family,
    friends and Jewish leaders. He is allowed weekly calls to the United

    Most recently he spoke with leaders of the JCRC of Greater Washington to
    thank them for leading U.S. advocacy on his behalf. Gross' home is in
    Potomac, Md., a Washington-area suburb.

    Gross, his family and his advocates want him to make a two-week visit to
    his 90-year-old mother, who is dying of cancer in Texas, after which he
    has pledged he will return to Cuba.

    His family had voiced support for allowing Gonzalez to return home for
    two weeks to visit his brother. Gonzalez made the visit in March and has
    since returned.

    Vidal said the two concessions were not equivalent.

    "The cases of Mr. Gross and Mr. Rene Gonzalez, I have to tell you, are
    different," she told CNN. "First, Mr. Rene Gonzalez, who is one of the
    Cuban Five, he served completely his term until the last day. Rene
    Gonzalez was not detained and was not imprisoned for attempting against
    U.S. national security."

    Those are the charges against Gross; Cuba says the Cuban Five were
    guilty only of spying on groups it considers as extremist and not on the
    U.S. government.

    Cuba maintains that Gross' activity on behalf of the Jewish community
    was a cover for installing sophisticated communications equipment. Gross
    has said the equipment is freely available in U.S. electronic goods
    outlets and online.

    Such distinctions have frustrated advocates for Gross, who note that the
    family took the unusual step of advocating for allowing Gonzalez to
    visit his brother.

    "We can certainly appreciate some of the humanitarian concerns facing
    the Five," Peter Kahn, Gross' American lawyer, told JTA in an interview.
    "In fact, we publicly urged that Rene Gonzalez be allowed to travel to
    Cuba to visit his critically ill brother. We only wish that the Cubans
    would reciprocate and allow Alan to visit his dying mother -- we really
    don't understand how they can be so cold-hearted in this situation if
    they sincerely mean what they say about dealing with Alan's case on a
    'reciprocal humanitarian basis.' "

    Halber of the Washington JCRC noted a new openness to Cuba under the
    Obama administration, which has facilitated travel between the two
    countries. President Raul Castro's daughter, Mariela, is attending a
    conference this week in San Francisco.

    Halber said the primary fault lies with the Cuban government for
    attempting to leverage Gross' freedom to secure concessions for the
    Cuban Five.

    "He is a man who is being used as a hostage, who is being used as a
    pawn," Halber said. "The Cubans are using a man as a bargaining chip to
    get back five correctly convicted folks who committed crimes on U.S. soil."