WASHINGTON — Moments after Judy Gross ended a phone call with her husband on the night before he planned to return home from Cuba in 2009, Cuban officials entered his hotel room and arrested him.
A Cuban court sentenced 64-year-old Alan Gross to 15 years in prison after deciding that the work he’d been sent to do there on behalf of the U.S. Agency for International Development constituted an attempt to undermine the Cuban government.
Tuesday, on the four-year anniversary of her husband’s arrest, Judy Gross joined family, friends and supporters for a vigil across from the White House to urge President Barack Obama to personally intervene to secure his return home.
Gross read a letter her husband wrote last week from his prison cell, in which he said, “I am only one man, but I am a citizen of the greatest country on Earth, a country I was serving in my work in Cuba, and I must believe – I do believe – that my country will not leave me behind.”
He wrote of the “stressfully demeaning” treatment, “oppressive” environment and “squalid conditions” in the prison that caused him to lose more than 100 pounds and suffer chronic pain and the deterioration of his mental health. Worst of all, he wrote, is his broken heart, due to separation from his family and disappointment that his government so far has failed to bring him home.
Obama has demanded Alan Gross’ “immediate and unconditional release,” and the Senate unanimously echoed that policy in a December 2012 resolution, but the Cuban government has not complied.
To diverge from the policy by negotiating Gross’ freedom would be a dangerous deviation from long-standing policy that the United States doesn’t negotiate with hostage-takers, let alone provide ransom or make concessions, according to Capitol Hill Cubans, a blog by Mauricio Claver-Carone, the executive director of Cuba Democracy Advocates.
“Alan is a pawn – and now a victim – in a dysfunctional relationship between the United States and Cuba,” said Ron Halber, the executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington.
The Cuban government has sought the release of five Cubans who were arrested in Florida in 1998 and sentenced to lengthy imprisonment after being convicted of spying on U.S. military installations and Cuban exile organizations. Judy Gross said she didn’t know whether Cuba’s interest in those prisoners was related to her husband.
Gross’ attorney, Scott Gilbert, said Cuban officials had offered to meet with American representatives to negotiate Gross’ release with no preconditions but that the White House hadn’t responded.
“I am very puzzled as to why, in this case, the necessary engagement and negotiations have not taken place,” Gilbert said. “I believe that the president of the United States does need to become personally involved in this. He may well want to appoint a special envoy to negotiate with the Cubans.”
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said at a news briefing that Gross’ imprisonment continued to impede more constructive relations between the United States and Cuba and reiterated the administration’s call for the Cuban government to release Gross.
Carney said the president had personally engaged foreign leaders to use their influence with Cuba to advocate Gross’ release and that the State Department had similarly engaged with a wide range of foreign counterparts.
Judy Gross said the U.S. government’s calls on the Cuban government for her husband’s immediate and unconditional release had failed for four years, and that reiterating those calls “will mean a death sentence for Alan.”
She urged Obama “to do whatever it takes to bring Alan home.”
Gross’ sister, Bonnie Rubinstein of Dallas, attended Tuesday’s vigil. She described her brother as a gregarious man who’d worked for about 30 years on humanitarian projects in more than 50 countries.
USAID had sent Gross to increase Internet access and connectivity in Cuba’s small Jewish community. Although Cuban citizens today have limited access to the Internet, at the time it was prohibited for all but government-sanctioned officials and individuals.
“We always had concerns wherever he went, but we were horrified when he was arrested in Havana that night,” Rubinstein said. “We were hoping and thinking, ‘He’ll come home in a few days.’ Who could have imagined this is where we would be four years later?”