WASHINGTON — On the sidewalk in front of the Cuban Interests Section, on a street that runs straight to the White House, dozens of people have been gathering each Monday for the past month to demand the release of an American who was imprisoned in Cuba two years ago.
Regardless of weather, the protesters carry laminated signs that say "Free Alan Gross Now," and they sing "Od Yavo Shalom Aleinu," a Hebrew folk song that translates to "Peace Will Come."
It's impossible to know whether the Cuban diplomats inside hear the pleas to free the 62-year-old Gross, who on Saturday marked his second anniversary in detention. Regardless, the protesters promise to return every Monday at noon until peace comes for Gross and his family.
"It's directed to everybody who drives down 16th Street and thinks, 'Hmm, maybe I should find out what that's about,' " his wife, Judy Gross, said of the weekly protests, which she attended last week for the first time. "But clearly we want the Cubans to know we're not going to just sit down and do nothing about this."
Judy Gross also has no intention of remaining quiet anymore, and as the second anniversary of her husband's imprisonment neared, she sat down for interviews with McClatchy and other publications. It's a marked departure from her previous approach, which was to grant few interviews and keep a relatively low profile in hopes of securing her husband's release.
Alan Gross, a U.S. citizen whom Cuba accused two years ago of plotting to "destroy the revolution," was convicted in March of crimes against the state for bringing telecommunications equipment into the country and was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
"At first we were keeping things pretty quiet because that's what we were advised to do, and not to try to ruffle the feathers of the Cubans at all," Judy Gross said. "But that obviously hasn't worked, so we're now trying to go more vocal. And still being nice about it."
Sometimes, she said, she wonders whether any strategy is best.
"You don't know," she said. "It's very hard to read the Cubans. You just don't know what they want. They've never really told us what they want."
Judy Gross also is raising the volume on her criticism of the Obama administration and the apparent unwillingness of anyone on either side of the Florida Straits to sit down and have constructive discussions that would secure her husband's release.
"The State Department has put in a great deal of hours on the case, I'll say that," she said, but she added that the Obama administration "has kept their hands off of it."
"At least publicly," she said. "I've not heard from them once."
Neither has her 89-year-old mother-in-law, Evelyn Gross, who wrote to President Barack Obama for help. She hasn't heard back from the White House, Judy Gross said. Her mother-in-law's greatest fear is dying before her son is released.
"It's hard for her to even say the word Alan without crying," Judy Gross said. "It's heart-wrenching. She wants to go to Cuba to see him. But I don't think she could make the trip."
Last week, Evelyn Gross released a video directed at Cuban President Raul Castro, asking the dictator to release her son on humanitarian grounds.
"I have lung cancer in both lungs," she said, "and it stands to reason I'm not going to be here for any length of time. So I want to see my son. I want to see him to come home, so he can be with us. He has two wonderful children and a wonderful wife, and they need him desperately."
Judy Gross, who visited her husband for the third time in November, said her most recent trip was a difficult one emotionally.
While imprisoned in a Cuban military hospital, in a small cell with two other people, Gross learned that one of his daughters had been diagnosed with breast cancer and his mother with lung cancer. Because of the loss of his income, his wife had to sell their Maryland home and move into what she described as "an apartment for one" in Washington.
The White House said in March that Alan Gross' sentence "compounds the injustice suffered by a man helping to increase the free flow of information to, from and among the Cuban people."
Roberta Jacobson, the top official at the State Department in charge of U.S.-Cuba relations, told a Senate panel recently that the Obama administration has always taken its cue from the Gross family, but she added that "we do think that it is time to speak out very loudly."
"Mr. Gross should be home with his family," said Jacobson, who was in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for her confirmation hearing as the assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs. "There are illnesses in his family. His own health has deteriorated while held by the Cubans, and he deserves to be home immediately."
Some Cuban-American lawmakers, including Sens. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., have argued that it's time for the U.S. to rethink policies that allow Americans to visit more — and to send more money to family members on the island nation.
Gross is effectively a hostage, Menendez told Jacobson last month in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, of which he's a member. And the administration's policy allows Gross to continue to be used as a pawn in the U.S. relationship with Cuba, Menendez said.
"I don't understand how you reward a regime for imprisoning an American citizen," he said. "I don't get it. And I hope someone at the State Department is going to wake up and say, 'You know what, you don't get anything certainly until you release that American.' "
Gross was arrested and jailed in Havana after he delivered at least one satellite telephone and other communications equipment as part of a U.S. Agency for International Development effort to assist Jewish and other nongovernment groups in Cuba. At the time, he was working for the Maryland-based government contractor Development Alternatives Inc.
Cuban television reports alleged that the satellite phones for Internet connections were part of Washington's decades-long effort to overthrow the communist government in Havana.
Jewish leaders in Cuba have visited Gross twice: once for Passover last spring and in September on the eve of Rosh Hashana. Consular officials from the U.S. Interests Section in Havana visit once a month, the State Department said.
Recently, former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson visited Cuba in an unsuccessful bid to secure Gross' release. U.S. officials denied reports that Richardson offered concessions to the Cubans in exchange.
The chairwoman of the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., has called on the Obama administration to end its conversations with the Castro regime, suspend adding charter flights to Cuba from more U.S. airports and implement the full range of sanctions at its disposal.
Ros-Lehtinen won't say what sorts of conversations she's had with the Gross family or government officials.
"I don't wish to be an impediment in any discussions that are taking place between governments about his release," she said. "We hope that every department is doing all that they can to secure his release, because it's totally unjustified."
The Cubans need a graceful way to let her husband go, Judy Gross said, and the politics of U.S.-Cuba relations haven't made that easy.
"There's some very powerful vocal people in the Congress who are not favorable to sitting down and negotiating anything with the Cubans," she said. "If you don't negotiate, you don't get anything."
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