Alan Gross: Castro's prisoner
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    Contractor Alan Gross marking five years in Cuban custody

    Contractor Alan Gross marking five years in Cuban custody
    By Ian Duncan,
    The Baltimore Sun

    Alan Gross has been locked up in Cuba for five years. When will he get out?
    After five years, is time running out for contractor jailed in Cuba?
    Four times, Alan Gross traveled to Cuba, lugging with him Internet
    equipment to connect the island’s small Jewish community to the outside
    world. And four times, he completed his trips to the Caribbean island
    nation without a problem.

    With each trip he made, the Potomac man became more concerned about his
    work, which defied the Cuban government’s strict controls on the
    Internet. But at worst, he assumed, if he ran afoul of the Cuban
    authorities, he’d be held briefly before being kicked out of the country.

    But at the end of his fifth trip, in late 2009, police seized Gross. He
    was charged with crimes against the state, convicted and sentenced to 15
    years in prison. Wednesday marks his fifth year in custody.

    For his family, Gross’ incarceration has been an unending nightmare. For
    diplomats, it is a significant sticking point in the long-strained
    relationship between the United States and Cuba, the communist nation 90
    miles from Florida.

    Gross’ supporters say his health is declining — once 254 pounds, he’s
    lost 100 pounds since being locked up — and he’s on the brink of losing
    hope.

    “Five years is far too long for an innocent man to be locked away from
    his family and his country,” said Gross’ attorney, Scott Gilbert. “Alan
    is about to give up, and we are running out of time.”

    The State Department, members of Congress including Sen. Ben Cardin and
    Rep. Chris Van Hollen, and former officials including President Jimmy
    Carter have campaigned for Gross’ release. Sens. Jeff Flake and Tom
    Udall traveled to Havana recently and met separately with Gross and
    Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla, but returned empty-handed.

    A spokeswoman for Van Hollen said the Montgomery County Democrat spoke
    with Gross by telephone in October and told him he was still pressing
    for his release.

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    “Every day that he sits in prison in Havana is another day of injustice
    for Alan Gross and another day that Cuba is missing an important
    opportunity to begin to reshape its relations with the United States,”
    Van Hollen said in a statement.

    Cuban officials have proposed a swap: the release of Gross for the
    return of the three members of a group known as the Cuban Five who are
    still imprisoned in the United States. U.S. officials have opposed the
    deal, saying Gross was an aid worker, while the Cuban Five were
    intelligence operatives who were convicted in federal court of
    conspiracy to commit espionage and other charges.

    Gross’ work in Cuba began at what Cuba watcher William LeoGrande
    describes as the tail end of an aggressive push by the administration of
    President George W. Bush to try to undermine the country’s communist
    government.

    Gross, who went to high school in Baltimore County and studied at the
    University of Maryland, College Park, before embarking on a career in
    international development, had long experience working on overseas
    projects to help hook up people to the Internet, according to an
    affidavit filed in federal court. He developed something he called a
    “telco in a bag” that could be used to get people online using
    satellites with equipment he bought at stores such as Best Buy.

    In late 2008, the U.S. Agency for International Development asked a
    Bethesda-based contractor to develop programs to boost free Internet
    access in Cuba, and Gross submitted a proposal.

    Gross did not speak Spanish. But he had traveled to Cuba, and he had
    worked on projects in dangerous parts of the world — including Iraq
    after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

    He made his first trip to Cuba in March 2009. At first the work went
    well, he said in the affidavit — part of a lawsuit he filed against the
    contractor and the U.S. government — and members of the Jewish community
    said his equipment was superior to anything they could obtain locally.

    After Gross fired up the mapping program Google Earth, a man said Gross
    had “showed him the world.”

    At the same time, Gross began to realize his work carried risks. During
    one trip, he said, he saw a van circling in a neighborhood where he was
    operating, its large whip antennas suggesting to Gross that it was
    sniffing for unauthorized communications.

    Gross said his bosses at the contractor, Development Alternatives Inc.,
    did not respond to his concerns and pushed him to make further visits.

    In the lawsuit, Gross said USAID had used him “as a pawn in its overall
    Cuban policy efforts.”

    The company reached a confidential settlement with Gross and declined to
    comment on the allegations, but called on the United States and Cuba to
    secure his release.

    “We remain deeply saddened and frustrated by Alan’s unjust
    incarceration,” said James Boomgard, the chief executive officer of DAI.
    The company is no longer working on projects in Cuba.

    A federal judge threw out Gross’ case against the government, and an
    appeals court upheld that ruling last month.

    Gross has remained locked up in Cuba, as one of his two daughters
    suffered breast cancer and underwent a double mastectomy, and as his
    mother died. He is being held a military hospital in Havana.

    LeoGrande, a political scientist at American University and co-author of
    “Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between
    Washington and Havana,” says it looked early on as if a deal could be
    struck to get Gross released.

    President Barack Obama had signaled an interest in improving relations
    with Cuba, and the government of Cuba seemed willing to let Gross out if
    the United States backed off some of its democracy-promotion programs on
    the island, LeoGrande said.

    But those efforts fell apart, and Cuban officials began to tie Gross’s
    release to the fate of the Cuban Five, who are promoted as heroes on the
    island.

    “We’ve always made it clear that there’s no equivalence between an
    international development worker imprisoned for more than four years for
    doing nothing more than helping Cuban citizens gain access to the
    Internet, and convicted Cuban intelligence agents,” said Pooja
    Jhunjhunwala, a State Department spokeswoman.

    The Cuban Interests Section, the country’s diplomatic mission in
    Washington, did not respond to requests for comment.

    The State Department says securing Gross’ immediate release remains a
    top priority.

    “We continue to use every possible diplomatic channel to press for Mr.
    Gross’ release, repeatedly, both publicly and privately,” Jhunjhunwala
    said. “We have also enlisted governments around the world and prominent
    figures to press for Mr. Gross’ release.”

    The challenge, LeoGrande said, is that the Obama administration insists
    Gross did nothing wrong and should be released without any conditions.

    “The administration painted itself into a corner very early,” LeoGrande
    said. What’s more, both nations’ stance toward improving relations with
    the other is marked by deep ambivalence. Each could benefit, but each
    has also lived with the current arrangement for decades.

    LeoGrande said the next major opportunity for progress could be at a
    meeting of the Organization of American States in Panama in April. Cuba
    might be invited to the summit for the first time, giving officials from
    the two countries a chance to hold talks on the sidelines.

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    But for Gross’ supporters, that is too long to wait.

    Sen. Barbara M. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, outlined a simple plan
    for Cuban President Raul Castro: “Let Alan Gross go! Let him go today,
    let him go now.”

    iduncan@baltsun.com

    Source: Contractor Alan Gross ends fifth year in Cuban custody –
    Baltimore Sun –