Alan Gross: Castro's prisoner
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    Why Five Years in Cuban Prison Sold Alan Gross on Obama’s Visit

    Why Five Years in Cuban Prison Sold Alan Gross on Obama’s Visit
    Margaret Talev
    March 11, 2016 — 11:00 AM CET

    It took five years, Pope Francis, President Barack Obama, and the
    exchange of three Cuban spies to get Alan Gross, gaunt and
    broken-toothed, out of a Havana prison.
    But 15 months after his return to the U.S., and days before Obama
    departs for a historic trip to Cuba on March 20, there may be no
    stronger advocate for fully restoring U.S. relations with the island
    nation and lifting a decades-old trade embargo.
    “His interest in going to Cuba is a very courageous thing to do, as was
    the decision to bring me home,” Gross said of Obama. The former
    contractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development —
    imprisoned for bringing prohibited Internet technology onto the island
    without a permit — said he’d go back to Cuba himself in a heartbeat, if
    the Cuban government would allow it. He’d even suggested going as part
    of Obama’s delegation because of the message it would convey.
    “Somebody would ask, ’Why would you want to go back there?’” Gross said
    during an interview in the Washington condominium where he and his wife
    have sought to rebuild their lives since he came home. “The answer is
    simple: The people. The Cubans — Cubanos — are wonderful people.”
    Cuba’s Future
    In talking about Cuba and his experience, Gross paints a picture of an
    island population suffering in poverty under a repressive government
    with their future constricted as long as an outdated U.S. trade embargo
    remains in place. He sees the Castro regime’s time as limited and
    Obama’s trip a prod for change.
    Gross, who volunteered for Obama’s 2008 campaign but has not endorsed a
    presidential candidate this year, expressed significant frustration with
    U.S. politicians in both parties who oppose establishing a broader
    relationship with Cuba. He said they, along with the Cuban government,
    are complicit in fostering the diplomatic tensions that kept him in
    prison for so long.
    “If we’re the leading country in the world, then we should lead by
    example” and stop “punishing a country for something that happened in
    the past that they’re trying to climb out of,” Gross said. “People just
    don’t understand: Life in Cuba for 11.3 million people is horrendous.
    They are just as much prisoners as I was.”
    Castro’s ‘Excuse’
    The Cuban government, led by Fidel Castro and more recently by his
    brother Raul, has been “impotent” and unable to alleviate the misery on
    the island, he said, adding that they’ve been abetted by a U.S. policy
    that is ineffective and no longer makes sense.
    “They’ve used us as an excuse for the entire time they’ve had this
    revolution,” he said. “But the revolution is a failure. Cuba only
    represents a threat to itself.”
    The U.S. lawmakers who staunchly cling to the embargo “are irrational
    when it comes to Cuba,” Gross said. “Some of them can say I’m suffering
    from Stockholm syndrome, but I dare them to say it to my face. As
    someone who’s worked in international economic development for the last
    35 years, I think that improving relations with Cuba is in our best
    Gross said he had a lot of time to contemplate these matters after his
    arrest in December 2009, as he was “rotting” in prison and waiting for
    his lawyer and the U.S. to work out his release.
    Lawmakers who oppose easing relations with Cuba say doing so will hurt
    the island’s residents.
    “This misguided action by President Obama will embolden the Castro
    regime to continue its illicit activities, trample on fundamental
    freedoms, and disregard democratic principles,” said Representative
    Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican, at the time Gross was released.
    Gross got to know about 20 fellow inmates while he was behind bars,
    mostly political prisoners, who cycled in and out as his cellmates. Some
    became close friends. Few spoke English; he picked up enough Spanish to
    get by and enjoyed their kindness when they shared treats their family
    members brought on visits, often made possible by remittances from
    relatives in the U.S. under rules relaxed by Obama.
    After what Gross described as an initial year of significant
    mistreatment, he said his circumstances improved. He had access to
    interpreters during official interrogations, to his lawyer, and to
    visitors, including members of the U.S. Congress. Among the visitors
    during his final months in prison was a high ranking Cuban official, who
    peppered him with propaganda. Gross said he convinced the official to
    provide data, and he received bound copies of economic and demographic
    data collected by the government.
    Cuban Economy
    From that Gross said he gleaned that at least 11 percent of Cubans,
    roughly 500,000 people, work in the private sector, which has been
    bolstered by remittances from the U.S. He also said the Cuban government
    is doing “subtle things” to loosen reins on the economy in the face of
    resistance from various factions including the military. There’s been
    some easing of restrictions on visas and more allowances for private
    sales of homes and cars. Although he was imprisoned for bringing
    computer chips and other equipment into Cuba, some broader access to the
    Internet is being allowed. But service still remains poor and too
    expensive for most Cubans, and the government continues to monitor
    e-mail and repress political critics.
    Gross said Cuba needs to show the U.S. more significant concessions,
    especially on human rights, if it wants the relationship to progress.
    “The United States has expressed and demonstrated its commitment in
    many, many ways,” Gross said. “The government of Cuba has not yet
    demonstrated its commitment.”
    Change will come, Gross said. Fidel Castro, who seized power in the
    1950s, is now 89, and Raul Castro, who took over for his brother a
    decade ago, is 84.
    “The Castros are totally irrelevant to Cuba’s future,” Gross said. “From
    a practical standpoint, they’ll be gone within a matter of a few years.
    Their legacy will be very difficult for Cuba to escape from. But Cuba
    will escape from that and we need to get out of the way.”
    While in prison, Gross said he also rooted for Cuba’s Industriales
    baseball team and hoarded blue plastic bands from the seals on water
    bottles, turning them into bracelets made from 18 bands at a time —
    significant, he said, because it is “the Hebrew numeric value of the
    world ’chaiim,’ which means life.”
    Sanders Visit
    He’d give the crafts to visitors, asking them to remember him. They
    included Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, now running for the Democratic
    presidential nomination, who was among several lawmakers who met with
    him in the prison.
    Gross also brought some of the bracelets out with him. He presented one
    to the pope as thanks for advocating on his behalf. Another was given to
    astronaut Scott Kelly, who befriended him when both were guests in first
    lady Michelle Obama’s State of the Union box last year. Gross said Kelly
    sought his experience being isolated from loved ones as the astronaut
    was preparing to spend a year aboard the International Space Station.
    Obama doesn’t have a bracelet. Gross said he was “never upset” with
    Obama for his imprisonment and understood that the U.S. had bigger
    foreign policy imperatives. Gross’s wife, Judy, is less content.
    “Alan is a lot more generous about President Obama than I am,” Judy
    Gross said. She said she spent years feeling furious and isolated. With
    her husband’s release “now I feel obviously less angry.”
    Gross keeps a humidor stocked with Cuban cigars to enjoy while walking
    through his northwest Washington neighborhood.
    “The main thing I want people to know is that I have absolutely no
    bitterness toward the people of Cuba,” he said. “They’re among the most
    generous, creative and warm and friendly people I’ve ever met. There are
    problems facing them for which they are not responsible.
    “I’m much more interested in the next five years than the last five years.”

    Source: Why Five Years in Cuban Prison Sold Alan Gross on Obama’s Visit
    – Bloomberg Politics –