Alan Gross, the American aid worker who spent five years in prison in Cuba, says he hopes Fidel Castro’s death will ease some of the anger and fear felt toward Cuba so progress can be made toward better U.S.-Cuba relations and the lifting of the U.S. trade embargo.
Gross is in a better position than many to comment on Castro’s death. The 67-year-old economic development and community engagement consultant was working as a U.S. government subcontractor helping Cubans set up Internet access when he was arrested in 2009 and accused of trying to undermine the communist government. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison and was held until he was freed in the 2014 prisoner exchange that kicked off the renewal of U.S.-Cuba diplomatic relations.
Gross never met Castro during his five years of captivity, but said the revolutionary leader’s presence could be felt. Gross was subjected to daily interrogations where his handlers sang the praises of Castro’s revolution and repeatedly condemned the terrible United States.
Those, however, were the only kind words he heard about Fidel during his years in Cuba. He called Castro a “brutal hijo de puta,” using a Spanish phrase that means “son of a whore.” He also called him a “megalomaniac” and an “incredibly brilliant man.”
“He killed many people. He enslaved the entire island for his personal enrichment,” Gross said.
But now, he said, Castro’s shadow can’t eclipse anything. People can look forward.
“People have a lot of anger. A lot of anger,” Gross said. “Not only in South Florida. In Cuba, also. That anger is like an anchor that’s weighing us down. If we can let go of that anchor just a little bit, we can start moving forward.”
Gross isn’t convinced Castro’s death will mean much change in Cuba itself since power had been passed to his brother, Raúl Castro, a decade ago. Gross sees a greater opportunity when Raúl steps down in 2018 and a Castro is no longer the head of state.
Gross is still angry with the Castro regime, but he’s also angry with those who cannot see the need for stronger ties with the island nation, something he advocates.
“Some people have told me to crawl under a . . . rock and die because I’m in favor of improved relations. And some people have said ‘you suffer from Stockholm syndrome,’ which I challenge them to say to my face,” he said. “I am no lover of the government of Cuba. If I had met Fidel Castro or Raúl Castro, it would have not ended well.”
He was especially angry at Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio for his criticism Saturday of President Barack Obama’s statement on Castro’s death. Rubio described the statement as “pathetic” for making no mention of the thousands Castro had killed and imprisoned.
Gross defended Obama’s message as appropriately “measured” and blasted Rubio.
“Rubio discredits himself,” said Gross, who lost 100 pounds and many of his teeth while imprisoned. “He did not have the Cuban experience that he claims to have had. He has not sacrificed anything because of Fidel Castro and neither did his family. I did. I had the Cuban American experience. And I’m not even Cuban. So I can speak with some level of credibility.”
Rubio couldn’t be reached Sunday, but told CBS’s “Face the Nation” that he’s looking for a democratic opening on the island of Cuba – “Things like, I don’t know, free press. Stop putting people in jail because they don’t agree with you politically. Stop helping countries like North Korea evade U.N. sanctions. Don’t invite the Russians to open a military base 90 miles from our shores.”
At the time of Gross’s release, Rubio had warned that the prisoner exchange that freed him – the U.S. also released three Cuban intelligence officers who’d been convicted of espionage – set a dangerous precedent. He told Fox News that the swap “puts a price on every American abroad. Governments now know that if they take an American hostage, they can get very significant concessions from the United States.”
Since his release nearly two years ago, the 67-year-old Gross has been getting reacquainted with his family and friends. He’s writing a graphic novel and just bought his first motorcycle. “I feel really, really free when I’m on the bike,” Gross said.
Earlier this year, he called on Congress to “grow a pair” and lift the U.S. embargo. He has called on Cuba to join the 21st century and said it’s time for the Cuban people to have a “come to Jesus moment with their government.”
He has been unsure about his professional future, unsure if he wanted to return to his old job as a consultant. But he said he now thinks he’s ready and plans to return to work next year.
Gross hopes one day to return to Cuba. He’s tried to contact the Cuban embassy on a couple of occasions.
“Just to sit down and talk,” he said. “I don’t want to focus on the last five years.. I want to focus on the next five years. But I have not received a response from them.”
Asked if he’d smoked a celebratory cigar to mark Castro’s death, he said he hadn’t and probably won’t.
“I want to enjoy my cigars and I don’t want to think of him every time I smoke one,” he said.