Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Papal visit to Cuba spurs talk of jailed U.S. contractor

Papal visit to Cuba spurs talk of jailed U.S. contractor
March 27th, 2012
By David Ariosto, CNN

Havana, Cuba (CNN) - Pope Benedict XVI traveled to Cuba this week, forging inroads with the Castro government and ultimately helping to bring about the release of a jailed American contractor. At least, that's how Judy Gross would like to see this week's papal visit play out.

"I hope it's very likely," she told CNN's Erin Burnett on Friday.

Her husband, Alan Gross, is in prison outside the Cuban capital on subversion charges. He was arrested on December 3, 2009, for distributing what officials described as sensitive communications equipment to the island's small Jewish community.

"We haven't been told anything, but we've been working with the highest authorities of the church for quite a while now and we're very hopeful that (Pope Benedict) will intervene on Alan's behalf," Judy Gross said.

The veteran development worker was detained after traveling to Cuba illegally on a tourist visa while working for a Maryland-based U.S. subcontractor. The firm, Development Alternatives Inc., had secured a federal contract in 2008 as part of an initiative called the Cuba Democracy and Contingency Planning Program.

Gross was involved in the project , which helped "implement activities in support of the rule of law and human rights, political competition, and consensus building, and to strengthen civil society in support of just and democratic governance in Cuba," according to a statement from DAI President and CEO Jim Boomgard at the time of Gross' arrest.

Cuba is one of only a handful of places - including Iran and Myanmar - where the United States funds democracy-building initiatives without the host country's permission.

"I'm sure (Pope Benedict) has been approached by high levels of U.S. government to intercede on his behalf," said Lexington Institute Cuba analyst Phil Peters. "But whether that will have any effect, it's hard to say."

In 1998, Pope John Paul II came to Cuba with a few requests, including an appeal to Fidel Castro to free some of the island's political prisoners.

Fourteen years later, despite a much different Cuba and a much different pope, there is still speculation of a similar request.

"It's not really Benedict's style to come in with specific negotiating points," said CNN Senior Vatican analyst John Allen.

Observers say that kind of hard-nosed back and forth with the government, should it happen at all, would instead be more likely to fall on the shoulders of Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican's secretary of state.

And yet the priorities Bertone is expected to focus on are largely geared more toward opening church access to state television and the administering of religious schools.

"Generally, (Pope Benedict) is going there to give the church more breathing room," said Allen.

Though the country recently released thousands of prisoners on humanitarian grounds ahead of Benedict's arrival, Gross, who is serving a 15-year sentence, was not among them, despite reports of his worsening health.

Observers said it is unlikely Benedict will comment publicly on Gross' imprisonment, which has largely become a symbol of the intractability of U.S.-Cuba relations and a sticking point for American diplomats.

Frozen for more than half a century, relations between the two nations exhibited small signs of a warming after the 2008 election of President Barack Obama. But State Department officials have said the Gross case remains a major impediment to further negotiations.

A widely reported 18-page Cuban court decision, acquired and published by Cafe Fuerte, a U.S.-based news blog that focuses on Cuba, indicated that Gross had sought to avoid detection from Cuban authorities and used tourists to carry in sophisticated satellite equipment and other communications gear.

CNN cannot independently confirm the authenticity of the court decision and the Cuban government has declined to comment, though it has also not denied its accuracy.

Gross' attorney, Peter Khan, was not immediately available for comment, but has maintained that his client acted innocently and was not involved in subversive activities.

Cuba does not permit such technologies to be brought into the country without permission.

Judy Gross, meanwhile, is hoping that this week's papal visit might help bring her husband home.

"I'm very lonely," she said Friday, saying that her husband's third year in detention has left her with "a lot of anger."

"I miss Alan's companionship so much."

Their attorney has petitioned Cuban President Raul Castro, who took the reigns from his ailing brother, Fidel, in 2006, to allow Gross to be released for two weeks so he can visit his ailing mother.

The apparent quid pro quo request came after a U.S. court released on probation Rene Gonzalez, a Cuban national who spent 13 years behind bars for spying on U.S. military installations and Cuban exile groups.

Gonzalez is a member of the so-called "Cuban Five," a group of Cuban men convicted in the United States on espionage charges. Cuba lauds the men as heroes, plastering their faces on billboards across the island.

Gonzalez, who had been unable to leave the United States as part of the terms of his release, was recently granted a temporary return home to visit an ailing family member, lending credence to the view that the United States could be exploring whether a potential prisoner swap might be possible for Gross.


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