Alan Gross: Castro's prisoner
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    Held 5 years by Cuba, Alan Gross calls his first year of freedom ‘surreal’

    Held 5 years by Cuba, Alan Gross calls his first year of freedom ‘surreal’
    By Fenit Nirappil December 16 at 2:43 PM

    As a prisoner of the Cuban government for five years, Alan Gross walked
    10,000 steps a day to pass the time and preserve his strength.

    Now, a year after his release, his daily strolls take him through the
    capital of the free world. The former USAID subcontractor ambles miles
    from his Northwest Washington condominium — through the National Zoo and
    Rock Creek Park, down to the Washington Monument, across the Memorial
    Bridge and back up 17th Street.

    Gross, a longtime development worker, was arrested in 2009 on suspicion
    of trying to destabilize the Communist government regime. He had been
    working in Cuba on behalf of the U.S. government, helping the local
    Jewish community gain access to the Internet.

    President Obama announced Gross’s freedom last Dec. 17, in a deal
    involving an exchange of prisoners. That day, Obama declared plans to
    reestablish ties with Cuba after more than 50 years of an embargo.

    “Coming home was just an incredible sense of happiness,” Gross said in
    an interview with The Washington Post. “From Dec. 3, 2009, the day I was
    arrested, my life became a bit surreal, and it still is today.”

    There was no house in Potomac, Md., to return to — Gross’s wife, Judy,
    sold it to pay off legal and other bills. Gross went from low-profile
    NGO worker to speaking with the president, sitting with first lady
    Michelle Obama during the State of the Union address, dining with former
    attorney general Eric H. Holder Jr. and traveling to Italy to visit Pope
    Francis. He routinely fields phone calls from people looking to invest
    in Cuba.

    During five years in a Cuban military hospital and jail cells, Gross
    shed more than 100 pounds and lost five teeth. His gaunt and gap-toothed
    appearance made him easily recognizable to Washingtonians when he returned.

    His introduction to this country’s selfie obsession came, he said, when
    people stopped him on his walks and asked if he would pose for a
    picture. “Then I got my temporary teeth,” Gross said. “And I lost my
    brand, and so people didn’t recognize me anymore.”

    Gross, 66, has learned to use Twitter and maintains an active presence
    on the social media app. “The level of anger in this world is unhealthy.
    Chill,” he posted three times in one week. He has expressed support for
    Democratic causes from unions to Planned Parenthood.

    Although he has given dozens of paid, private speeches across the
    country, he only recently agreed to media interviews about his ordeal.
    Earlier, he said, he feared interfering with negotiations with Cuba or
    prompting retaliation against certain other prisoners — all of whom have
    now been freed. He has written a book about his experience and is
    looking for a publisher.

    U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), who advocated for Gross’s release
    and flew with other lawmakers and officials to retrieve him, said his
    former constituent has turned into a valuable advocate for normalizing
    relations with Cuba.

    “He’s a great person to take on that cause because he has been the
    victim of this particular Cuban government,” Van Hollen said. “He knows
    the problems with this particular regime, but has lent his voice to
    those who recognize that the best way to improve the condition of the
    Cuban people is to increase communications and interaction between our
    two people.”

    Gross says he’s met with members of Congress in both parties to describe
    his experience. He has not sat down with the loudest critics of Cuba,
    who have blocked U.S. efforts to roll back trade restrictions and
    appoint an ambassador to represent the interests of the United States in
    Havana.

    “I’m angry at what happened. But my sincere interest is to focus more on
    the next five years than the last five years, and I think that I’ll get
    over my anger,” said Gross. “The clear majority of Cuban Americans are
    in favor of normalization, and I think that’s a demonstration that they
    are getting over their anger. They might have lost everything in Cuba. I
    lost everything, too.”

    Gross is determinedly upbeat — sometimes jarringly so — and cracks jokes
    at some of the darkest parts of his imprisonment. He explains that his
    jailers threatened to hang him and pull off his fingernails, then quips
    that he called two seemingly clueless interrogators “Cheech” and
    “Chong,” after the 1980s American comedy duo. The reference, he says,
    was utterly lost on his captors.

    Finding something to laugh at every day was an essential part of
    surviving imprisonment. “When I would laugh, my cellmates would laugh,”
    Gross said. “It was a way to cope. Humor is a good coping mechanism.”

    Since Gross’s imprisonment, Cuba has taken steps to cut the price of
    accessing the Internet and made WiFi networks available in Havana.

    Gross is trying to launch an economic and community development
    consulting business, but he says the accusations levied against him by
    Cuba still hang over him, limiting his ability to work overseas. He
    maintains that he did not know that it was illegal according to Cuban
    law for him to be paid by the United States to distribute equipment in
    Cuba — a contention that continues to draw scrutiny.

    An investigation by the Associated Press uncovered internal reports in
    which Gross described his work as “very risky” and identified himself as
    a member of a humanitarian group, instead of someone working on behalf
    of the U.S. government.

    “I worked in 54 countries, and we were not aware that there was any
    particular danger in going to Cuba,” Gross said, his voice growing
    testy. “Raul Castro admitted to Jimmy Carter that he knew I wasn’t a
    spy, so we should put that to rest at this point.”

    In 2012, Gross filed a lawsuit against the U.S. government and
    Development Alternatives, the contractor overseeing his project in Cuba,
    alleging they failed to prepare him for a dangerous assignment. The
    lawsuit against the government was dismissed, and Gross reached a
    confidential settlement with the contractor. He also was set to receive
    the bulk of a $3.2 million payment from USAID to the contractor, which
    was the result of a separate claim. Gross and his attorney declined to
    provide details.

    To mark the first anniversary of his return, Gross plans to travel to
    Atlanta to visit friends, family and the National Center for Civil and
    Human Rights.

    The toughest part of readjusting to life in the United States, he says,
    is seeing his weight balloon. He describes his pre-imprisonment body as
    rotund and says that as he continues to enjoy abundant and delicious
    food, he is once again at risk of not being able to look down and see
    his toes.

    That makes his daily walks through Washington all the more important.

    Some days, Gross said, when there aren’t too many people around, he
    takes out a Cuban cigar to enjoy as he strolls.

    Source: Held 5 years by Cuba, Alan Gross calls his first year of freedom
    ‘surreal’ – The Washington Post –
    www.washingtonpost.com/local/held-5-years-by-cuba-alan-gross-calls-his-first-year-of-freedom-surreal/2015/12/16/2435768a-a389-11e5-b53d-972e2751f433_story.html