MIAMI — A U.S. government subcontractor spent 25 days in a Havana jail before he received his first visit from a U.S. diplomat, but he'd already met with a Cuban lawyer involved in the case of five Havana spies whom Cuba wants freed from U.S. prisons, according to classified U.S. diplomatic cables.
The cables, written by U.S. diplomats in Havana, provide previously unknown details in the case of Alan P. Gross, whose imprisonment has become the most serious impediment to date for the Obama administration's declared desire to warm relations with Cuba.
In his first visit with diplomats, Gross reported that he'd lost 30 pounds during his 25 days in prison. He spoke only in vague terms about the semi-clandestine mission that landed him in the grips of Cuba's political police, the General Directorate of State Security.
The cables are among more than 250,000 U.S. diplomatic dispatches that WikiLeaks provided to McClatchy and other news organization.
Gross, 62 and a veteran international development specialist from Potomac, Md., was arrested Dec. 3, 2009, after smuggling a satellite telephone to Cuba's tiny Jewish community so it could independently access the Internet.
He was working for Development Associates International, a suburban Washington firm contracted by the U.S. Agency for International Development as part of a $20 million campaign to assist civil society on the island.
Cuba brands the USAID programs as subversive, and Gross is serving a 15-year sentence in a Havana military hospital on charges of violating its "independence and territorial integrity." His family and the U.S. government have urged Havana to free him as a humanitarian gesture because his wife, daughter and mother are all in ill health.
One dispatch sent just hours after the U.S. consul general in Havana at the time, Martha Melzow, first visited Gross for an hour Dec. 28 in Villa Marista, a detention center for investigations of political crimes, showed him concerned about his uncertain situation.
He reported suffering from high blood pressure, which he didn't have before his arrest, a duodenal ulcer and high levels of uric acid in his urine, the cable noted. Gross wanted to stop one of the five prescription drugs he was taking because "it was affecting his clear-headedness and balance."
Gross added "that he had fallen down and also fainted, and that he needed to stand up from a sitting position slowly," the dispatch added. "He had lost 30 pounds ... observed that he was given lettuce and fresh fruit to eat and joked that good health seemed to be a very important concept for the prison." Eleven months later, his wife reported that he had lost 90 pounds.
Cuban officials hadn't physically abused him and were treating him "with respect," though his interrogation had been "very intense at first," lasting an average of two hours a day, Gross told Melzow.
His cell had a TV and a fan, but he "expressed concern about having to share it with two other men," the cable noted, giving no further details.
Gross reported that the day of the consul general's visit was the first day "he had been allowed to use a belt and shoelaces," the cable added. Those restrictions apparently are part of Cuban prisons' precautions against suicide attempts.
Underlining the sensitive nature of the case, Gross told the U.S. consul that Cuban authorities had allowed him to telephone his wife, Judy, on Dec. 6 — three days after his arrest — and again on Dec. 23. Villa Marista prisoners are seldom, if ever, allowed to call their families.
Told that his family had hired a U.S. lawyer to represent him, Gross "pulled the business card of a Cuban attorney that had come to visit him," the cable noted. Villa Marista prisoners can be there for months before they see lawyers.
The cable identified the lawyer as Armanda Nuria Pinero Sierra, who also represents the families of five Cuban spies held in U.S. prisons. She later was hired as his attorney and handled his trial and appeals.
Gross' arrest sparked almost immediate speculation that Cuba wanted to swap him for the five Cubans, who were convicted in 2001 on charges of conspiracy to commit espionage against U.S. military installations.
The Cuban government claims the five were in South Florida to monitor exile militants, and it's maintained a long-running international campaign portraying them as heroes and demanding their release.
Gross was apparently already aware of the possibility of a swap when he met with the consul general. He asked her "if his case might be compared in any way to that of the Cuban Five. The CG did not respond," the cable said.
Gross — or perhaps the writer of the dispatch — was much more discreet about his work in Cuba for USAID. It's unclear from the cables what U.S. diplomats knew of Gross' activities before his arrest.
"When queried by the CG as to what he was charged with, Gross said quote contraband end quote with no further clarification," the dispatch reported.
Gross also told Melzow that anyone who searched for his name on the Internet could learn about his 30-year career in development work. He added that "GOC (government of Cuba) officials quote knew everything end quote before he was taken into custody," the cable noted.
It wasn't clear whether he was referring to his experience or his USAID mission to Cuba. Some of those missions are semi-secret in hopes of bypassing Cuban efforts to block them, but Havana broadcast several TV programs after his arrest that showed its spies had penetrated some of the USAID programs.
Gross also "wanted to know if the CG knew about his activities. She said she did not," the cable noted. He also asked "if there were other Americans in the same situation, i.e., other Amcits (American citizens) entering Cuba on the same type of program who had been detained."
The cable reported that Melzow didn't respond, but there've been no reports of other USAID contractors detained in Cuba.
The cable added that Gross "wants his name kept out of the press" and that his personal effects at the time of his arrest included a "CityBank (sic) password decoder" but didn't explain its use. Computer experts McClatchy consulted said they had no idea what that could be.
The WikiLeaks cables barely speculate on why police arrested Gross, and they don't mention any of the other USAID contractors identified in the Havana television programs.
Perhaps Cuba wanted to pressure Washington to halt the USAID programs, one cable noted. Another hinted at the possibility that former ruler Fidel Castro had ordered the arrest to assert his lingering power over the country.
But the cables sent by the U.S. Interests Section in Havana — it isn't an embassy because the two countries don't have full diplomatic relations — show that Gross' arrest came amid heightened tensions.
A cable dated Dec. 14 reported that Havana officials had complained to the U.S. diplomats only days before that the U.S. Coast Guard had violated Cuban territorial waters while helping a stranded American vessel.
It added that Cuba also had complained that U.S. diplomats participated in dissident activities Dec. 9-10 for Human Rights Day. The U.S. mission replied that its diplomats merely monitored the events.
The mission's security officer also reported "an increase recently in suspected surveillance of USINT officials," the cable added, and the staff was "advised to exercise caution and consider fully ... the potential that a planned activity could be misconstrued willfully by the GOC."
(Tamayo reports for El Nuevo Herald in Miami.)
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