Is Washington Letting This American Rot in a Cuban Jail?
Is Washington Letting This American Rot in a Cuban Jail?
Havana keeps saying that it’s willing to let this U.S. contractor go.
But the White House and Congress keep rejecting the offers.
BY YOCHI DREAZEN | NOVEMBER 15, 2013
Four years ago, Cuban security agents arrested an American subcontractor
named Alan Gross, accused him of spying for the U.S., and sentenced him
to 15 years in a Havana prison. Gross has been languishing there ever
since, a victim of Obama administration inaction, Congressional
meddling, and the difficulties of negotiating with a regime as mercurial
and opaque as the government of Cuban strongman Raúl Castro.
The story of Gross’s continuing imprisonment — his sentence is set to
run for 11 more years — offers a case study of Cuba’s potency as a
political issue on Capitol Hill, where powerful lawmakers have helped
block at least one deal that could have brought the contractor home. The
White House, for its part, has shown little interest in substantive
negotiations with the Cubans, in part because Havana’s demands have
shifted considerably over the years. Gross, who traveled to Cuba to
deliver satellite phones and other communications equipment to the
island’s small Jewish community, has lost nearly 100 pounds and watched,
from less than 100 miles away, as his daughter developed breast cancer
and his 90-year-old mother’s health deteriorated sharply because of her
own battle with lung cancer. Barring something unforeseen,
he’ll never see her again.
The Gross case isn’t simply about the fate of a single American.
U.S.-Cuban relations have been frozen for years, but President Obama
took office in 2009 with what seemed like a clear political mandate to
change that. He had won Florida after taking more of the Cuban-American
vote than any Democrat in decades, and the White House quickly began
exploring concrete ways of relaxing the sanctions, making it easier for
Cuban-Americans to travel home, and improving diplomatic ties between
the two countries. Those efforts were largely put on ice after Gross was
arrested and sentenced, and it’s not clear when, or if, they’ll resume.
The latest twist in the saga is just spinning up now, with a loose-knit
coalition of roughly 50 senators from both parties working to finalize a
letter to the White House that uses some of the most forceful language
to date to press President Obama to cut a deal with Havana. The letter,
obtained by Foreign Policy, calls on Obama to “take whatever steps are
in the national interest” to get Gross, 64, out of Cuba.
An earlier draft, portions of which were also obtained by FP, was far
more explicit in calling for a negotiated settlement, with lawmakers
pressing Obama to take “any measures necessary” to free Gross. People
familiar with the matter say that the language was softened because of
strong opposition from two of the most powerful and prominent members of
the Senate, both of Cuban-American descent: Robert Menendez of New
Jersey, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations
Committee, and Republican Marco Rubio of Florida, who is widely seen as
a likely contender for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016.
People involved in the Senate deliberations say that Menendez and Rubio
have also been privately lobbying some of the 50 senators who have
expressed a willingness to sign on to the letter to reconsider their
support and remove their names. Legislative aides who have been working
the issue expect at least a handful of the original signatories to drop
off before the letter gets to the White House.
“Menendez and Rubio have been explaining to members that the original
letter seemed innocuous, but it was really calling for the Obama
administration to make more concessions to Castro,” said Mauricio
Claver-Carone, the director of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC and a close
ally of the two senators. “They’re making the case that we’ve been
negotiating with the Cubans for four years, that it hasn’t worked, and
that its time to impose consequential actions on Cuba until it frees
The two lawmakers are pressing their case in a White House letter of
their own. The letter, obtained by FP, calls for Obama to work towards
Gross’s “immediate and unconditional release,” as opposed to holding any
negotiations — or making any concessions — to bring it about. The
seven other signatories include New York Democrat Chuck Schumer and an
array of Cuba hawks like Arizona Republican John McCain and South
Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham. A Menendez aide said the letter will
be delivered Friday.
The Gross case is so sensitive that none of the lawmakers and Capitol
Hill staffers involved in the internal government deliberations over his
release or the talks with the Cubans would speak for the record. The
White House declined to comment and referred questions to the State
Department, where a spokesperson said “securing Alan Gross’s immediate
release is a top priority of the U.S.”
“We use and will continue to use every appropriate diplomatic channel to
press for Mr. Gross’s release, both publicly and privately,” the
Gross’s lawyer, Scott Gilbert, said the administration could be doing
far more. Gilbert said the White House had erred by arguing that the
Cuban government should release Gross unconditionally before Washington
would address the broader U.S.-Cuba relationship while simultaneously
calling for an improvement in U.S.-Cuban relations in order to then
bring about his freedom.
“You have a self-created ‘Catch-22,’” he said.
The chain of events that would ultimately end with Gross’s arrest began
fifteen years ago with the passage of the Helms-Burton Act, a
hard-hitting bill that formalized the decades-old, and largely
ineffective, U.S. embargo against Cuba. Congress approved the bill in
March 1996, just weeks after Cuban MiG warplanes shot down a pair of
small planes operated by a U.S.-based dissident group called Brothers to
the Rescue, killing the four people aboard.
“In their memory, I will continue to do everything I can to help the
tide of democracy that has swept our entire hemisphere finally, finally
reach the shores of Cuba,” President Clinton said at the time.
The legislation directed the U.S. Agency for International Development
to devote more resources to democracy promotion work in Cuba, and the
George W. Bush administration created a program designed to help
ordinary Cubans evade the Castro regime’s strict controls on their phone
and Internet usage. The money devoted to that initiative jumped from
$3.5 million in 2000 to $20 million in 2009. A Bethesda-based firm
called Development Alternatives, Inc., or DAI, received much of that
funding. DAI, in turn, hired Gross to bring satellite phones and other
communications equipment to Cuba. He began traveling to the island in
Gross’s ordeal began on the night of December, 2009, just minutes after
he finished a phone call with his wife Judy. He was slated to fly home
the next day, but Gross never left Cuba. Instead, according to a
detailed account in Foreign Affairs, four Cuban security agents knocked
on the door of Gross’s room in Havana’s Hotel Presidente and arrested
him as soon as he opened it up. They took him to a waiting car and drove
him to a nearby military base. He has been in jail ever since.
Gross has acknowledged bringing satellite phones and other sensitive
communications equipment into Cuba, but said he was simply trying to
make it easier for the island’s small Jewish community to connect with
the outside world over the Internet. In court testimony and media
appearances, Gross said that he wasn’t aware that he was doing anything
The Cuban government, however, said that Gross was a spy who had been
sent to Cuba to help ordinary citizens break the laws of their country.
Cubans need formal permission from the government to use satellite
phones or to connect to the Internet. The Cuban government moved Gross
to a military prison and prepared to put him on trial.
Backchannel negotiations for Gross’s release had begun shortly after his
arrest. People familiar with the matter say that the Cuban government
initially indicated that it would consider releasing Gross if the
American pro-democracy programs on the island were eliminated or sharply
cut back. These people say that USAID quietly agreed to spend only $15
million of the $20 million that had been budgeted for the programming in
2010. The agency also said it would spend just $10 million of the money
the following year, these sources said. Gross’s supporters would later
point out that $10 million seemed like an astonishingly small amount of
money to pay to get an American citizen out of a third-world jail.
A person with direct knowledge of the talks said that word of the
changes leaked to Menendez and Republican Representative Ileana
Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, a Cuban-American who was then the ranking
member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Both lawmakers opposed
making any concessions whatsoever to the Cuban government. “Menendez
communicated to the White House, very bluntly, that there would be
serious repercussions if the money wasn’t spent,” this person said.
USAID duly spent the full $20 million set aside for 2010. It would
ultimately spend $20 million in 2011 as well.
Talks between the U.S. and Cuba continued, hampered by the levels of
mistrust and hostility that had built up over the past few decades. In
the fall of 2010, according to Foreign Affairs, then-Assistant Secretary
of State Arturo Valenzuela met with Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno
Rodriguez in New York to discuss the case. Valenzuela, according to
Foreign Affairs, said Cuba had to release Gross before Washington would
be willing to discuss other aspects of the U.S.-Cuba relationship.
Rodriguez, the magazine reported, was angry that Valenzuela was laying
down preconditions without making any promises of his own. The meeting
ended without a deal. Valenzuela, now a professor at Georgetown, didn’t
respond to repeated requests for comment.
Gross’s trial began in Havana in March 2011. He apologized to the Cuban
government and insisted that he hadn’t been trying to subvert Cuban law
or weaken the powers of the Castro government.
“I do deeply regret that my actions have been misinterpreted as harmful
and a threat against the security and independence of Cuba,” Gross said
in a transcript of his hearing later released by one of his attorneys.
“I am deeply sorry for being a trusting fool. I was duped. I was used.
And my family and I have paid dearly for this.”
The court decided Gross hadn’t paid enough and sentenced him to 15 years
in a Cuban prison, a surprisingly harsh punishment for an American
citizen then in his early 60s. In November 2012, Gross and his wife Judy
filed a $60 million lawsuit against his former employer, DAI, accusing
the firm of failing to adequately prepare him for the challenges and
dangers of working in Cuba. The family settled the lawsuit this past
May, without publicizing the terms and with neither party admitting fault.
“We have been clear from day one that Alan’s safe return to his family
is our first priority,” DAI President and Chief Executive Officer Jim
Boomgard said in a statement at the time. “Settling this litigation
allows us to work together on that overriding goal, which should be the
focus for everyone involved in this case.”
Judy Gross, in the same statement, said she was “pleased” the company
had committed itself to doing everything in her power to win her
“We want Alan back home, safe and sound,” she said.
There’s no sign that will happen anytime soon, however. The on-again,
off-again talks have foundered over the future of the so-called “Cuban
Five,” a quintet of Cuban intelligence officers who were convicted of
espionage and a variety of other crimes in 2001. One of them, Gerardo
Hernández, was linked to the February 1996 downing of the two civilian
planes operated by Brothers to the Rescue, the U.S.-based dissent group.
He and three others remain in prison. The fifth, a U.S. citizen named
René González, was paroled in 2011 and was allowed to return to Cuba in
April 2013 for his father’s funeral. A federal judge ruled that González
could stay in Cuba permanently if he gave up his American citizenship.
Several Americans who have worked on the Gross case for years said the
Cubans have repeatedly offered to hold talks over his fate without
preconditions, but didn’t get a response from the Obama administration.
Other Cuban officials indicated to U.S. representatives that any
resolution of the Gross case would have to involve the freeing of one or
more of the four Cubans. An American who was involved in earlier phases
of the talks said that he thinks the Cubans might also have been open to
a deal if the U.S. had agreed to give the men new trials or improve
their living conditions. “We’re talking conjugal visits, things like
that,” the person said.
There appears to be little chance of that sort of swap happening.
Secretary of State John Kerry, who held a secret meeting with Rodriguez,
the Cuban foreign minister, during his time in the Senate, bluntly told
the House Foreign Affairs Committee in April that the Obama
administration wouldn’t be willing to release the Cuban prisoners in
exchange for Gross. The contractor, he said, should instead be released
on “humanitarian” grounds.
“They were and have been attempting to trade Alan Gross for the five
spies that are in prison here in the U.S., and we’ve refused to do that
because there’s no equivalency,” he said. “Alan Gross is wrongly
imprisoned, and we’re not going to trade as if it’s spy for spy.”
Raul Castro, Cuba watchers say, doesn’t appear willing to accept
anything less than the freeing of some or all of the four Cuban spies.
“Raul raised the cost of letting Alan go,” said a Hill staffer with
knowledge of the case. “The ask is now the Cuban Four; if gets less than
that, he loses face. He’s boxed himself in and needs to be able to show
something he’s not likely to get.”
Last spring, Rodriguez sat down with Gilbert and Judy Gross in Havana
and floated the idea of sending Gross back to the U.S. for a two-week
parole so the contractor could see his dying mother. Gilbert said the
talks never matured because U.S. representatives “weren’t given clear
directives” from senior Obama administration officials about whether to
pursue a deal.
While the tussling continues, Gross is languishing in a Cuban jail,
where he spends 23 hours per day in a small cell that he shares with two
other prisoners. Prison appears to be taking an enormous physical and
mental toll. A lump on Gross’s shoulder led to a temporary cancer scare.
He missed one of his daughter’s weddings and wasn’t there for her when
she was diagnosed with breast cancer. His mother, 90, appears to be in
the final stages of herlung cancer battle. Gross isn’t slated to be
freed until 2024, when he will be 75 years old. Gilbert, his lawyer,
said hope of an early release is the only thing keeping Gross alive. If
the U.S. government doesn’t figure out a way of bringing the contractor
home, Gilbert said that he expects his client to die in prison. “Keeping
him there for 11 years would be a death sentence,” Gilbert said.
Source: “Is Washington Letting This American Rot in a Cuban Jail? – By
Yochi Dreazen | Foreign Policy” –