Thursday, February 23, 2012

Alan Gross revelations could hamper campaign for his release

Alan Gross revelations could hamper campaign for his release.
Tuesday, February 21, 2012
Ron Kampeas/ JTA

Washington — For the Jews of Cuba, it was the ultimate Internet connection.

The high-tech equipment that U.S. contractor Alan Gross brought with him
to Cuba in 2009 to help connect local Jews to the Internet reportedly
included a SIM card that makes it almost impossible to track satellite
signals and is generally unavailable to civilians, even in the United

That was one of the revelations in an Associated Press report earlier
this month that has exacerbated concerns that Cuba will hang tough on
its stated determination not to release Gross, a 62-year-old Maryland
Jewish man who was in Cuba to do work for the U.S. Agency for
International Development, or USAID. Gross is serving a 15-year prison
sentence in Cuba for crimes described as "acts against the integrity of
the state."

Yet the AP report, apparently based on mission reports by Gross, helps
reinforce the claim that Gross, his family, his employer and the State
Department have made all along — that Gross' mission was straightforward
and not at all nefarious: He wanted to hook up Cuba's Jews with their
brethren worldwide.

The AP article "doesn't change what we're doing," said Malcolm Hoenlein,
the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major
American Jewish Organizations. "We never argued the matters that were
raised" regarding Gross' activities, he said.

According to the AP story, Gross understood the dangers he faced. That
is evident both in his reports — he called his enterprise "risky
business in no uncertain terms" in one memo — and his actions. He
recruited Jewish tourists to help bring in the devices, and the most
damaging evidence, according to AP, was the sophisticated SIM card he
had in his possession.

Yet the story also makes clear that Gross, who was arrested on Dec. 3,
2009, hardly fits the profile of a spy, which is how Cuban President
Raul Castro described him.

"Alan Gross was working as a contractor for the U.S. government to
promote democracy in Cuba," said William Daroff, the Washington director
for Jewish Federations of North America. "He was convicted by a court in
a country that does not respect the rule of law. His now over two years
in a Cuban prison is unjust, and we demand the Cuban government release
him and that the American government use all of its influence to bring
him home."

The Jewish Federations and the local Jewish Community Relations Council
in Washington have taken the lead in pushing publicly for Gross'
release, including petitions and vigils outside the offices of Cuban

"It hasn't had any impact at all; if anything it's only strengthened
peoples' resolve," Ronald Halber, the director of the Washington JCRC
said, of the AP story. The JCRC is set to launch on Wednesday a petition
at urging Pope Benedict XVI to make the case for
Gross' release when he visits Cuba next month.

Gross is said to be ill, having lost 100 pounds of the 250 pounds he
weighed before his arrest. His daughter and mother have suffered bouts
with cancer during his incarceration.

Those close to the case say privately that the AP's revelations would
not be news to the Cuban authorities. However, they are concerned that
making them public will inhibit any Cuban willingness to release Gross.

The AP story describes Gross' mission as setting up hundreds of Cubans —
particularly the island's 1,500 Jews — with WiFi hotspots for
unrestricted Internet access as part of the democracy promotion by
USAID, a State Department program. The story depicts Gross' interactions
as primarily with Cuba's Jews.

"He did nothing wrong other than to connect peaceful non-dissident
Jewish communities to the Internet," said Steven O'Connor, the spokesman
for Development Alternatives Inc., the USAID contractor that hired Gross.

Gross' wife, Judy, addressed the AP story's claims for the first time on
Sunday in a breakfast with congregants at Congregation Chizuk Amuno in

"To suggest that Alan had any ulterior motive other than to help Cuba's
small Jewish community improve its access to information through the
Internet and Intranet is categorically false," she said in prepared
remarks shared exclusively with JTA. "Unfortunately, in countries like
Cuba, the free flow of information is forbidden, and therefore it should
come as no surprise that Alan had to be careful and discreet while he
was in Cuba.

She added, "That members of the media and the blogosphere continue to
debate and analyze Alan's work — a discussion in which the participants
openly speculate as to his motives and his actions, despite having never
met the man or even spoken with him — while he rots in a Cuban prison
without the opportunity to freely and openly respond, is deplorable."

Judy Gross described her husband's mission as setting up unfettered
Internet access to communicate with Jews outside Cuba and an Intranet so
the communities — some in remote areas — could communicate with one
another, "allowing them to share things like recipes, prayers and even
sports scores."

She described testimony at Gross' trial by an elderly Cuban Jewish man
who needed assistance in getting to the stand.

"When the prosecutor asked him what Alan showed him on the Internet, he
became emotional and said, 'We saw the world!'" she recounted. "A bit
taken aback by this response, the prosecutor asked the witness to
explain further. He said that Alan used the Internet to show them places
they had never seen before — pictures of the Western Wall in Jerusalem
and the city of London. Clearly he did so through Google Earth,
something we take so much for granted in our country."

Gross' backers still hold out hope that the Cubans may consider his
release, although the news from last year is not good; his lawyers have
exhausted the Cuban appeals system, up to and including a plea to
President Castro.

Additionally, the reported Cuban request in exchange for Gross' release
— the release of the "Cuban Five," U.S.-based Cuban intelligence
officers arrested in 1998 and convicted in 2001 — would be difficult at
the best of times. In an election year it is seen as impossible, given
the anti-Castro sentiments prevailing in Florida, a swing state.

Hoenlein said the Presidents Conference is continuing its appeal to
figures and countries that may have influence with Cuba.

"We have approached other countries, religious leaders, those who have
ties or are visiting Cuba," he said. "We have tried all the different
venues possible that might give some result."

Daroff said the burden of securing Gross' release was on the entity that
sent him on his mission: the U.S. government.

USAID spokesmen did not return multiple requests for comment. State
Department officials, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, have
said that securing Gross' release is a priority.

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