Episode 75 – 5 Years in a Cuban Prison: The Story of Alan Gross


In the fall of 2016 something truly bizarre happened in the United States embassy in Havana, Cuba. According to reports, 22 embassy staffers were suffering from mild brain damage, concussions and permanent hearing loss. Scientists and researchers are still debating the causes of these events but many suspected covert sonic attacks. In response, the US expelled two Cuban diplomats and warned US citizens not to travel to Cuba.

These peculiar events took place just one year after the US embassy was reinstated in Havana and only a few months after President Obama became the first US president to visit Cuba since 1928, as part of what became known as the Cuban Thaw. The thaw marked a warming in the relations between Cuba and the US – a move which was heavily criticized by many.

In the midst of all this was one American Jew from Long Island.

Alan Gross was a US government contractor and social entrepreneur who traveled to developing countries to bring modern communication technology like satellites, phones and internet to the locals. His journeys led him to Cuba in 2009, where he provided local Jewish communities with various technological equipment. However, during his fifth visit to Cuba, something unexpected happened. The 60 year-old Gross was arrested by the Cuban Police.

About the events that unfolded next, we will hear from the man himself. Today we are deeply honored to be joined by Alan Gross.
(Photo by the White House)

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Alan Gross, after spending 5 years in a Cuban prison, is starting over in Israel


Alan Gross with some of his favorite things — a pastrami sandwich and a Cuban cigar — at Loeb’s Deli in Washington, D.C., on July 12. Photo by Ron Kampeas/JTA

Alan Gross contacted me a couple of months ago over Facebook Messenger. There was something he thought I should know.

I was pleasantly surprised. I’d only exchanged pleasantries with Gross in the several times I’d seen him since his release from a Cuban prison in December 2014, ending five years of imprisonment for his work connecting Cuba’s Jewish community to the internet.

Gross, 68, wanted to tell me his news: He and his wife, Judy, had made aliyah, immigrating to Israel under the Law of Return.

“It came through on May 3, which is Golda Meir’s birthday, and a day after my birthday, which is also Herzl’s birthday,” he said. “It was long overdue. I’d been going there for more than 40 years, and I’d worked in Israel and around the region.”

Gross was going to be stateside this week and proposed we meet at Loeb’s, a deli here — he loved Israel, but longed for pastrami.

Why break this news to JTA?

Gross recalled that he and I first met at a public event just after his release. I said hello and, sensing his reluctance to talk, beat a retreat. Perhaps that’s not the best instinct for a reporter, but in this instance Gross, having been set upon by others who insisted on chatting at a time when he still felt disoriented, appreciated that I held back.

So we chowed down Wednesday at Loeb’s on his precious pastrami and Dr. Brown’s cream soda. (“Tradition!” Gross sings.) He was dressed for the intense Washington July heat: cargo shorts, a blue summer shirt and a straw hat.

When he was arrested in 2009, Gross, then of Potomac, Maryland, was working as a subcontractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development setting up internet access for Cuban Jews. He wasn’t charged until 14 months into his detention, then “accused of being a threat to the integrity and/or independence of the state.”

Gross was released in December 2014 as part of a broader exchange in which three Cubans convicted of spying were released from American prisons. The same day, President Barack Obama announced renewed ties with the communist nation.

As a contractor who worked in development, Gross was especially busy in Israel and the Palestinian areas working on joint Israeli-Palestinian development after the launch of the Oslo peace talks in 1993.

“I was in Israel probably 60 times before I made aliyah,” he said.

Alan and Judy Gross live in Tel Aviv. They have a daughter living in Jerusalem with her wife and their daughter, the Grosses’ granddaughter.

“My other daughter got married this weekend [near Portland, Oregon], and she and her husband are teachers and are going to move to China,” he said. “It’s only a 10-hour flight to Hong Kong” from Tel Aviv.

We keep circling back to why he made aliyah.

“I walked into IKEA first and last time in Rishon [LeZion], it was just like all of the others I’ve seen,” he said. And yet: “This was unique because almost all of the people were Jewish. That’s an incredible, refreshing feeling.”

Gross could not pinpoint a time he started thinking about making aliyah.

“I can’t say Cuba had anything to do with it,” he said. “I don’t think my Jewish background had anything to do with my treatment.

“The first time I went,” when he was 28, “my wife and I co-led a group of 45 teenagers for 45 days for BBYO. I’ll never do that again, but it really turned me on. Six months later I was working for BBYO.”

He spent four years with the Jewish youth organization and another four working for the Jewish federation in Washington, D.C., and then he returned to his chosen field, development.

In Israel, Gross also wanted to vote. He cannot hide his disappointment with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his endless coalition compromises, most recently resulting in the freeze of an agreement with non-Orthodox Jews on worship at the Western Wall.

“With all due respect to Mr. Netanyahu, he’s a brilliant man and the No. 1 expert in the world in terms of holding onto his job,” Gross said. But he won’t delve much further into Israeli politics, except to say he plans to exercise his right to vote.

“If you don’t like what’s going on in Israel,” he said, “make aliyah and vote.”

What’s his favorite thing about Israel?

“Walking. Every day I walk up to the Carmel Market, into Jaffa and to the Tel Aviv port,” he said.

Also public transportation.

Gross shows off his Rav-Kav card, which gets him onto any mode of transportation — train, bus, light rail — for half price because he’s a senior citizen. He marvels about Israel’s public transportation and notes it takes him 90 minutes to get from his daughter’s home in Jerusalem to his Tel Aviv flat. He wishes more Israelis loved it like he did, fretting — like a veteran Israeli — about the traffic accidents in the country.

He also kvells about a cigar store in Tel Aviv called Brill, where he meets every Friday afternoon with an array of aficionados and talks politics and “fake news” over cigars, hummus and whisky. He acquired the cigar habit in jail.

“The Cuban government would give me a box of nice cigars every time a dignitary visited,” Gross recalled, brandishing one he purchased in Switzerland. “Each box was worth a month’s salary to a Cuban. They got me hooked, the motherf*****s.”

Would he go back to Cuba given the chance?

“I’d go back in a heartbeat,” he said.

Gross has written twice to the Cuban Embassy here just wanting to talk. He hasn’t heard back.

He wants to see the families of his cellmates, who brought him food.

“They helped sustain me for five years,” Gross said. “They’re my family, too.”

Gross lost five teeth to poor nutrition during his time in jail.

“They had a lot more cigars than food,” he said of the Cuban authorities. “Fifty percent of the arable land in Cuba is not being cultivated.”

What does he think of President Donald Trump’s rollback of President Barack Obama’s moves to lift travel and commercial restrictions with Havana?

Gross is not a fan of Trump.

“He’s so much invested in reversing anything Obama did, if Obama walks forward to avoid tripping over something, Trump would intentionally walk backwards and trip on it,” Gross said. “He’s going to hurt the Airbnb business” that has proliferated since the Obama reforms, “the restaurants that support the Airbnb business and the private taxis and all the other ancillary industries that support the Airbnb business.”

Gross is an avid social media presence, and Trump is a favorite target.

“There is a difference between not fit and unfit, not competent and incompetent. The POTUS is the latter in both,” he wrote recently on Twitter, using the acronym for the president of the United States.

Gross said he had joined Twitter and Facebook before his 2009 arrest in Cuba, but hadn’t much use for either. That changed when he returned.

“Facebook enabled me to reconnect with a lot of friends and family,” he said. “People didn’t know how to react to me, a lot of people wanted to get together right away, others thought I wanted to be left alone. It’s a wonderful network.

“Twitter is a different story; Twitter could be really brutal. I try not to give rabid responses. Sometimes I fail.”

Gross relishes communication.

“I hadn’t communicated in prison for almost five years,” he said. “The last nine months I was allowed access to email a couple of times a week — not internet — but that changed my life there. That was a tremendous improvement to my psyche.”

He does not begrudge Obama the time he waited to be released.

“When Judy and I met Obama, and she said, ‘Thank you for bringing my husband home,’ he said with great sincerity, ‘I wish we could have done it sooner,’ and I said ‘better late than never,’ Gross recalled.

“The decision to bring me home could have only been made in the Oval Office. Was it made late? Yeah, but there are other things going on in the world, things that are also important, maybe more important than Cuba because Cuba represents no threat to anyone.”

In fact, Gross obtained an absentee ballot in the 2012 election and voted for Obama. He is also grateful to three lawmakers who led the fight for his release: Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., and then-Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md. (now a U.S. senator), as well as to the organized Jewish community.

“The reality is it was the grassroots effort in the Jewish community who tipped the effort,” he said. “There were tens of thousands of emails, literally tens of thousands, that’s what tipped the scales. My redemption from Cuba is a story of activism.”

What does Gross want the world to know?

That he was not a spy and Cuba’s authorities never him considered one: He was convicted of crimes against the state.

Misreporting that characterized him as a spy means he cannot get back into the business he loves — the development of emerging economies. Gross appears regretful, but also sanguine.

“In the countries where I work, emerging markets, I can imagine people looking at me with a stink eye, ‘is he or isn’t he?’ I’m not, I never was, I never will be [a spy],” he said, “but that eliminates an ability to regain client trust.”

How’s his Hebrew?

Not great, and not as good as his Spanish, which improved vastly in a Cuban jail.

Joking, he says “I can say ‘why not?’ in six languages.”

Alan Gross on Fidel Castro: ‘History will never absolve him’


Alan Gross, who was imprisoned on espionage charges for five years in Cuba while trying to assist its Jewish community, said following the death of Cuban leader Fidel Castro, “History will never absolve him.”

Castro’s death at the age of 90 was announced on Friday night by his brother, Raul, Cuba’s current president.

“History will never absolve him. But perhaps now the voices of Cuba will be heard. Speak up, Cuba,” Gross tweeted shortly after Fidel Castro’s death was announced.

In later tweets he called for the United States to lift its embargo on Cuba.

When he was arrested in 2009, Gross, of Potomac, Maryland, was working as a subcontractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development setting up internet access for Cuban Jews.

Gross was released in December 2014 as part of a broader exchange in which three Cubans convicted of spying were released from American prisons. The same day, President Barack Obama announced renewed ties with the communist nation.

Gross has called for improved ties between the United States and Cuba. In September, he endorsed then-Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, citing in part her commitment to the Obama administration’s new openness to Cuba.

Alan Gross endorses Hillary Clinton, citing her Cuba policy


Alan Gross, imprisoned for five years in Cuba for his efforts to assist its Jewish community, endorsed Hillary Clinton for president, citing in part her commitment to the Obama administration’s new openness to Cuba.

“I support her commitment to continue and improve our new Cuba policy,” Gross, who was arrested in 2009 for distributing internet equipment to the island’s Jewish community, wrote in an Op-Ed that appeared Friday in the Sun-Sentinel in southern Florida where Clinton and her Republican opponent, Donald Trump, are expected to battle for the Jewish and Cuban vote.

“It was about time to recognize that if we want the Cuban Government to get out of the way of its private sector and private citizens, we also need to get out of the way,” he said.

Gross, of Potomac, Maryland, was a subcontractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development when he was arrested. His Op-Ed cited his experience delivering aid and assistance to the developing world in making his case for Clinton over Trump, whom Gross criticized for delivering broadsides against minorities and proposing to separate Mexico and the United States with a massive wall.

“Having worked in 54 countries, I know how important it is for the U.S. to be seen as the leader of the free world,” he wrote. “Our president must command respect and be cognizant of circumstances in other countries. Hillary is no novice to world conditions and how these intersect with our economic and physical security at home. She knows the value of building bridges, not walls.”

Gross was released in December of 2014 as part of a broader exchange in which three Cubans convicted for spying were released from American prisons. The same day, President Barack Obama announced renewed ties with the communist nation.

Alan Gross opens up about surviving Cuban prison, selfies


Since being imprisoned in Cuba six years ago, Alan Gross says his life has been “surreal.”

He feels disassociated from the causes of his five-year incarceration and from the resulting fame. He was locked up largely because of U.S.-Cuba relations, he says, and he is a public figure thanks to the people who followed his story in the news or advocated on his behalf.

“It never was about me,” Gross said in an interview in his Washington, D.C., condominium. “My life became surreal the night I became detained, and it still is today. I don’t quite understand the celebrity function.”

That doesn’t mean he isn’t grateful to the people who signed petitions or gave media interviews demanding his release. Gross credits them with bringing him back to the United States, via Andrews Air Force Base, on Dec. 17, 2014.

When he was arrested in 2009, Gross was working as a U.S. government subcontractor setting up Internet access for Cuban Jews.

“It is illegal to distribute anything in Cuba that is funded in full or in part by the U.S. government. That’s why they detained me initially,” he said, insisting that his Jewish background or work had nothing to do with it.

Gross says once the Cuban government realized he could be used as a bargaining chip in its diplomacy with the U.S., he was stuck. While he wasn’t physically tortured, he suffered in other ways.

“They threatened to hang me, pull out my fingernails,” he said. “They told me I would never see the light of day.”

Gross stayed busy by walking around the cell he was locked in 23 hours a day, drawing pictures and creating word puzzles. During his incarceration, he said, he often recalled a scene from the television show “M*A*S*H” in which one character taunts another, who was confined to his tent as a punishment, by stepping in and out of the tent.

“I thought about that almost every day, the ability to step in and out,” Gross said. “The freedom, that’s what I missed every day. Freedom is an incredible thing to lose.”

For the first several months, Gross wasn’t allowed reading materials. Later, visitors brought newspapers and his family sent books and the Economist magazine. He rarely saw fresh fruits and vegetables, eating a lot of chicken and rice – as well as potatoes, yucca and malanga. Due to poor nutrition, he lost several front teeth, which he keeps in a small container in his office.

“I think I lost about 70 pounds the first year, and the next three years, another 40 pounds,” Gross said.

He had limited contact with his family. His wife visited about every seven months. One daughter, who lives in Oregon, came about six months before his release. His other daughter, who lives in Jerusalem, he never saw.

For the first 3 1/2 years in jail, he didn’t know people were working for his release. He was amazed to learn of the Washington Jewish community’s weekly vigils for him during a visit from his wife and attorney.

When he was finally given access to a phone, Gross called Ron Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington. They didn’t know each other. But Gross was desperate, and Halber was willing to help.

Gross let it be known that he was in failing health, emotionally despondent and unwilling to see anyone but his wife. He went on a nine-day hunger strike in April 2014, which he said alarmed the Cubans. But it was a ploy, he reveals.

“I wanted to turn the heat up. I was never despondent. I never wanted to take my life,” he said.

Soon after his release, Gross met supporters at a homecoming party at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland. He described the evening as “very confusing.” When a young man came up and asked to take a selfie with him, Gross had no idea what he was talking about. He has since had selfies explained to him.

Now that the celebrations have dwindled, Gross says he does a lot of “walking, thanking people and smoking Cuban cigars.” No longer confined to a cell, he walks for miles, often around his neighborhood near the National Zoo. He also likes to play his collection of 10 mandolins and is excitedly awaiting the birth of his first grandchild.

Gross misses his work on behalf of the U.S. Agency for International Development, which took him around the globe, including to Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. He’s happy to tell the stories behind the colorful weavings, tribal masks and other world art covering the walls of his home. But he’s afraid to leave America again.

Despite his ordeal in the Communist island nation, Gross still has special affection for the Cuban people, including the Jews he tried to serve, whose numbers he says have dwindled to about 1,000.

Recalling the largest synagogue, in Vedado, a Havana suburb, Gross said, “It’s just like many Jewish community centers around the world.” He says Shabbat dinners are well attended, partly because the meals supplement the little food people have.

Gross is working on a book about his experience in Cuban prison. The working title: “It was never about me.”

Alan Gross: Memory of Holocaust survivor relatives got me through prison


Alan Gross, the American Jewish government contractor who spent five years in Cuban prison, said thinking of his family members who survived the Holocaust was one of three things that helped him get through the ordeal.

Gross told CBS news program “60 Minutes” in footage released Friday that he “had to do three things in order to survive” each day in Cuban jail.

“I thought about my family that survived the Holocaust. I exercised religiously every day, and I found something every day to laugh at,” he told journalist Scott Pelley, in his first interview since being released last December.

In a preview of the episode, which airs in full Sunday night, Gross, 66, of Rockville, Maryland, also revealed that for the first two weeks of his detainment, he was confident he would get out quickly.

Gross, a contractor for the United States Agency for International Development, had been helping connect Cuba’s small Jewish community to the Internet when he was arrested and charged with crimes against the state.

Gross had traveled to Cuba numerous times as part of a project to connect the Communist-governed island’s small Jewish community to the Internet. On his fifth trip, he was taken into custody and accused of crimes against the state.

Gross was released on Dec. 17, the first day of Hanukkah, as part of a larger diplomatic agreement between the United States and Cuba.

Alan Gross never debriefed after release from Cuba


Alan Gross, the Jewish-American government contractor who was jailed in Cuba for five years as a spy, was never debriefed after his release from prison and return to the United States, according to a new report.

No U.S. government official has debriefed Gross since his release from prison in Cuba more than nine months ago, the Daily Beast reported Thursday citing an “authoritative source.” The report comes a day after President Barack Obama announced that the United States would open an embassy in Havana more than 50 years after diplomatic relations were severed. Cuba also plans to open an embassy in Washington.

While in prison it was rumored that Gross was an undercover CIA agent.

Both Jill Zuckman, Gross’ spokesman, and Noel Clay, a State Department spokesman, declined to comment on the issue to the Daily Beast.

Gross, 66, was released from prison in December. He was arrested in Cuba in 2009 and charged with crimes against the state after setting up Internet access for the Jewish community there while working as a contractor for USAID. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison but was freed following an agreement by the U.S. and Cuba to work to renew diplomatic relations and improve commercial ties.

In May, Gross spoke at a fundraiser for New Cuba PAC, which calls for easing trade and travel restrictions between the island nation and the United States.

Supreme Court rejects Alan Gross’ appeal in suit vs. U.S.


The U.S. Supreme Court rejected Alan Gross’ appeal in a $60 million lawsuit he filed against the U.S. government.

On Monday, the high court rejected the appeal of the Jewish-American contractor, who spent five years in a Cuban prison, Reuters reported.

Gross and his wife sued the U.S. government for negligence in 2012, saying it had sent him to Cuba without adequate supports.

Last year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled that the U.S. government was immune from claims arising in a foreign country. A district court originally rejected the suit.

Gross was released from prison in December as part of negotiations between the Obama administration and the Cuban government aimed at normalizing relations between the two countries.

Cuba had sentenced Gross to 15 years for providing Internet equipment to the local Jewish community under a program that the government found suspicious.

In a separate development, Gross will receive $3.2 million in a settlement reached with the U.S. Agency for International Development and DAI, a contractor with which he worked.

A month after Alan Gross’ arrival, a welcome-home party at his synagogue


Alan Gross wore a gray suit, red tie and a perpetual smile as he took the stage Thursday night at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Md., at a welcome-home reception in his honor sponsored by dozens of Jewish organizations, including the the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington.

But while he celebrated being “home sweet home” with “my kehilla, my community, my tribe,” Gross revealed that his previous five years spent imprisoned in Cuba was the very opposite – “home sweet hell.”

Gross was released Dec. 17 from a Cuban prison, five years after he was arrested for his work as a subcontractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development hooking up the island’s small Jewish community to the Internet. He had been sentenced to 15 years for crimes against the state.

His release came the same day that President Obama announced the resumption of diplomatic ties with Cuba after more than 50 years.

To pass the time in captivity and keep his sanity, Gross fashioned jewelry out of bottle caps, such as a blue bracelet made of intertwining bottle caps in the shape of a Havdalah candle.

Rabbi Jack Luxemburg, Beth Ami’s senior rabbi, joked Thursday about the sizable crowd, saying that “it looks like Rosh Hashanah in here.” Addressing the crowd, he later turned serious to say that “in a way it is like Rosh Hashanah, turning a page in the Book of Life for our community and Judy,” Alan’s wife, who had doggedly advocated for his release. “Let us not forget the invisible hands who contributed to bringing Alan home.”

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said it was special for him to look up at the State of the Union address and see Alan and Judy Gross sitting next to First Lady Michelle Obama. “What a journey, from five years in prison to the State of Union address with the first lady.”

He then gave a special thank you to Judy Gross who was “relentless. She was fighting every day, telling the White House the clock is ticking here.”

He went on to praise Alan Gross as an exemplary model of “resilience and keeping the faith.”

As wrenching as Gross’s experience was, he evidently kept his sense of humor. Van Hollen told the crowd that Gross got a call from President Obama while on the plane home. The congressman asked how the call went, and Gross said, “‘It was a great conversation, only the call interrupted my first corned beef sandwich in five years.’”

Geoffrey W. Melada is the editor-in-chief of the Washington Jewish Week.

For Cuban Jews, improved ties to U.S. may not resolve central challenges


On a recent Friday night inside this city’s Beth Shalom synagogue, Aliet Ashkenazi, 25, stood draped in a blue-and-white prayer shawl leading prayers in a mix of Spanish and near-perfect Hebrew.

It was the first time she had ever led services – a feat considering she converted to Judaism seven years ago after discovering her father was Jewish.

The 300-seat sanctuary in the Cuban capital was near capacity, but the crowd filling the wooden pews was largely American, comprised of tour groups from New York and New Jersey. The next morning, with the Americans gone, the crowd had thinned. A handful of youths sat in the first few rows, leaving a gray-haired cohort of congregants in the back.

This is typically how things go for Cuba’s 1,500 or so Jews: Hordes of out-of-town guests arrive, bringing with them suitcases full of clothing and coveted medical supplies, and then they’re gone, leaving Cuba’s diminished Jewish community behind.

A month since the United States and Cuba announced renewed diplomatic relations after more than five decades of mutual recrimination and mistrust, it remains unclear how rapprochement will change things for Cuba’s Jewish community, which has shrunk tenfold since the end of the Cuban Revolution in 1959, when there were 15,000 Jews here.

“If it will be better for Cuba, it will be better for Jews in Cuba as well,” said Ida Gutzstat, executive director of the B’nai B’rith Maimonides Lodge, a community center attached to the Sephardic synagogue in this city’s Vedado neighborhood.

Amanda Amato, a 49-year-old secretary, sipping a plastic cup of Cristal beer at one of the lodge’s biannual parties, said, “We have a difficult economic situation now, but it’s not for all time.”

Already there has been some easing. Americans — including the thousands of Jews who fled Cuba after the revolution – now can send remittances of $2,000 every three months to Cubans, four times the previous limit.

While Cuban Jews endure the same depressed conditions as other Cubans, surviving on monthly food rations and salaries that rarely exceed $40 per month, the community as a whole is the recipient of largesse most Cubans can only dream of.

Cubans generally have restricted Internet access, but computers at Beth Shalom are wired, and the synagogue’s youth lounge contains a PlayStation and Nintendo Wii. Financial support from humanitarian organizations such as the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which has operated in Cuba since 1991, enables Beth Shalom to provide community members with meals on Fridays and Saturdays – often non-kosher grilled chicken or canned tuna, followed by coconut ice cream. The synagogue office houses the community’s pharmacy, which twice a week dispenses free medicine supplied by Jewish tourists and aid organizations. While heath care is free in Cuba, over-the-counter drugs are rationed for ordinary Cubans.

Some worry that the stream of international charity from humanitarian organizations such as the JDC and B’nai B’rith International has created a culture of dependency, particularly among older people who are more interested in the much-needed handouts than their Jewish identity.

Adela Dworin, president of Beth Shalom and the Jewish community’s de facto government liaison, said that Cuban Jewry is sometimes hamstrung by its financial dependence on aid groups that earmark funds for individual projects, complicating where synagogues can allocate donations.

“It would be better to send to us directly,” Dworin said. “We can’t depend our whole lives on Americans and Canadians. We must become more independent.”

The Jewish community also enjoys the support of the regime. President Raul Castro twice has attended Hanukkah celebrations at Beth Shalom. The country has two other synagogues in Havana and smaller congregations in the provincial towns of Santa Clara, Camaguey, Cienfuegos and Guantanamo.

Dworin was granted regular visits with Alan Gross, the Jewish-American contractor who served five years in a Cuban prison until his release last month. Dworin told JTA that she recently received an email from Gross in which he expressed a desire to return to the island.

Cuban Jewry’s greatest privilege, though, is also one of the community’s biggest challenges.

Ordinarily, Cubans are barred from emigrating without special permission from the government. Yet since 1992, when the Cuban constitution was changed to accommodate freedom of religion, a government concession to stave off unrest once Soviet aid ended, Jews have been allowed to leave for Israel. In 2013, 72 Cuban Jews made aliyah, according to Israel’s Absorption Ministry – a considerable number given the size of the community.

Most of the emigrants in recent years have been Jews in their 20s and 30s, few of whom remain in Cuba. Elianas Quinones, a 19-year-old medical student, said 20 to 30 of her friends have immigrated to Israel in recent years. The community’s Sunday Hebrew school, Albert Einstein, has 168 students, some as young as 4. But roughly 40 percent are middle aged or older, according to Hella Eskenazi, the school’s principal.

Though emigration continues, there has been a steady influx of converts into the community – mostly Cubans from intermarried families who have discovered their Jewish heritage since the early 1990s. Visiting Conservative rabbis from across Latin America have helped convert them in mass ceremonies. The most recent one was about three years ago, when 20 men were circumcised at Havana hospital, jumping for joy and crying “Mazel tov!” in front of befuddled nurses, Dworin recalls.

Dworin says she knows of at least 10 more people who want to begin the conversion process but can’t because Cuba does not have its own rabbi. She estimates that fewer than 20 of the country’s Jews were born to two Jewish parents.

For the few Jews here who keep kosher, they can receive beef rations instead of pork. The thick-bearded Jacob Berezniak-Hernandez, leader of the nearby Orthodox synagogue Adath Israel and a trained kosher butcher, distributes the meat from a small Old Havana storeroom.

“Cubans deserve a better life, with more materialistic things and more freedom,” Dworin said. “If the economic situation in the country improves, we hope people will stay.”

A key factor is whether the United States will lift its embargo of Cuba. In his State of the Union address on Jan. 20, President Barack Obama called on Congress to cancel the trade embargo, a major step toward American investment on the island.

Luis Szklarz, 76, who attends Adath Israel, which is secured behind a gate laced with barbed wire in Old Havana, said as long as the embargo remains in place, Jews will continue to leave the island.

“The old people are going to die and the young people are making aliyah,” he said. “There is no future.”

For Ashkenazi, relieved and exhausted after leading Friday night prayers, it’s hard to imagine a future not in Cuba. She describes the synagogue, which she attends every weekend, as a home away from home.

Whatever happens, she said, “the most important part of my life is here.”

U.S. agency pays Alan Gross in contract settlement


The U.S. Agency for International Development has reportedly paid Alan Gross $3.2 million as part of a settlement of with his employer, Development Alternatives.

The settlement, announced Tuesday in a statement by USAID, aimed to resolve claims pending before the Civilian Board of Contract Appeals. The statement did not name a figure, but media reports, citing a spokesperson for the federal agency, put the amount at $3.2 million.

“The settlement, agreed in principle in November, calls for payment by USAID for unanticipated claims under the cost-reimbursement contract, including claims related to Mr. Alan Gross. The settlement avoids the cost, delay and risks of further proceedings, and does not constitute an admission of liability by either party,” the statement said.

Gross, 65, a Jewish-American contractor, was arrested in Cuba in 2009 after setting up Internet access for the Cuban Jewish community while working as a contractor for the USAID. He was released earlier this month after five years in prison.

In 2012, Gross and his wife, Judy, filed a lawsuit against the U.S. government and Development Alternatives charging that Gross should have been better trained and informed of the risks before going to Cuba. The couple settled in May with Development Alternatives for an undisclosed amount.

For Cuban Jews in America, rapprochement with Castro regime a perilous choice


For many Cuban Jews – the majority of whom now live in the United States – it has been a bittersweet week.

Like countless Jews around the world, they cheered the release of Alan Gross, the American Jewish telecommunications contractor who had been held in a Cuban prison for the last five years.

But then there’s the matter of reestablishment of diplomatic relations between Washington and Havana.

For those old enough to remember the most brutal years of the Castro regime, the idea of rapprochement with a country still ruled by the Castro family (Fidel’s brother, Raul, is now president) is more cause for concern than celebration. And while there’s some acknowledgment that ending the embargo may bring some benefits for the Cuban people, it is surpassed by abiding concern that the deal President Obama announced on Wednesday will extend the life of a brutal dictatorship whose crimes can be neither forgotten nor forgiven.

“Castro is being saved today by Obama!” bemoaned Joseph Perelis, who came to the United States in 1961, two years after Fidel Castro took power in Cuba. “In the terms I see, this will allow Castro to maintain his grip on power.”

The newly announced deal with Washington, he said, likely would enable Cuba to adopt the Chinese model: a Communist regime where the army and the party are enriched by capitalist enterprise while the cheap labor of the people is exploited for the benefit of the regime and its trading partners.

“The old 1959 political refugees want a democratic regime change: free press, free elections, free Internet, a real improvement for the Cuban people,” Perelis said.

Nancy Brook, who left Cuba in 1961 when she was 12, expressed similar concerns, even as she acknowledged the failure of America’s Cuba policy to dislodge the Cuban regime.

“It is obvious that the so-called embargo has not worked,” she said. “But will these new measures bring benefits and freedom to the Cuban people or just benefit the Cuban government and their bunch of thugs?”

Brook has not been back to Cuba since she left. Her parents came to the United States three years later, after the two stores and eight-story building they owned were confiscated by Castro’s Communist regime.

There is something of a generational divide among Cuban Americans when it comes to the question of the embargo. Many younger Cuban Americans say ending the long U.S. embargo may provide new opportunities to change life in Cuba for the better. But those who witnessed the regime’s crimes firsthand generally believe there can be no rapprochement with a Castro-led government.

“The older Cubans, both Jewish and non-Jewish, are mostly against because they suffered: They had to abandon Cuba, they saw a lot of injustices,” said Sergio Grobler, a past president of the Cuban Hebrew Congregation of Miami, Temple Beth Shmuel. “The younger Cubans mostly are for an easing of the relationships between Cuba and the U.S., because the most horrifying things happened before they were born. When you don’t see it with your own flesh, it’s different. But I think it would be immoral to accept what has been happening.”

That generational divide is evident within Grobler’s own family. Grobler says his son has talked to him about wanting to visit Cuba; visits by Americans have been permitted to the island nation for some time, so long as they take place under certain conditions, such as under religious or journalistic auspices. Grobler says he has no problem with his son going to see the place his father grew up and visiting the local Jewish community, but he himself won’t go until the Communist dictatorship has been removed.

“I refuse to go to Cuba,” Grobler said. “I refuse to do business with them. I will go the day prior to the day there will elections in Cuba.”

In the Perelis family, too, the generational divide is evident.

“In general, younger Cuban-Americans (myself included) see the embargo as a stupid policy which only gives the Castro regime an enemy to blame and excuses for their incompetence and absence of human rights,” said Joseph Perelis’ son, Ronnie Perelis, who is a professor of Sephardic studies at Yeshiva University and was born in the United States. “Nixon went to China. We have had diplomatic and military relationships with dastardly regimes from the Saudis to [Chilean dictator Augusto] Pinochet.”

Yet Ronnie Perelis acknowledges some ambivalence about this week’s announced changes.

“Clearly the embargo has been a failure and perhaps openness can open a new way forward,” he said. “The chance of person-to-person contact changing things in small ways in the island is not insignificant.”

But, he added, the change may also “simply leave the regime in a stronger position to continue their control of the population without any democratic change.”

Marcos Kerbel, a past president and now chair of the finance committee at the Cuban Hebrew Congregation in Miami, says the community is taking a wait-and-see attitude for now.

“We’re all extremely happy about the release of the Alan Gross,” Kerbel said. “I don’t take political sides. We see in Congress there are some debates about the new policy. My attitude right now is wait and see what’s going to happen.”

 

Gross’ release, and changes in diplomatic ties, signals new day for Cuban Jews


Alan Gross was imprisoned while trying to connect Cuba’s isolated Jewish community to the wider world. The deal that got him released five years later may do just that and much more.

Gross’ flight home to suburban Washington on Wednesday with his wife, Judy, was part of a historic deal that overturns over five decades of U.S. policy isolating the Communist island nation helmed by the Castro brothers.

“We will end an outdated approach that for decades has failed to advance our interests and instead we will begin to normalize relations between our two countries,” President Obama said in announcing Gross’ release and radical changes in U.S. Cuba policy.

U.S. officials in a conference call outlined sweeping changes, including the resumption of full diplomatic relations, the opening of an embassy in Havana, and a loosening of trade and travel restrictions.

Dina Siegel Vann, the director of the American Jewish Committee’s Belfer Institute for Latino and Latin American Affairs, said Gross’ release and the opening of ties with Cuba is a twofer for the Jews: In addition to the benefits accrued to all Cubans from open relations, she said, Cuban Jews “will have stronger ties to Jewish organizations, they will be much more in the open.” An estimated 1,000 to 1,500 Jews live in Cuba.

Gross, who is now 65, was arrested in 2009 after setting up Internet access for the Cuban Jewish community while working as a contractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development. Never formally charged with espionage, Gross was convicted in 2009 for “crimes against the state.”

Back in the United States on Wednesday, Gross held a news conference, which he began with the greeting “Chag sameach,” noting that his release coincided with the first day of Hanukkah. He thanked political leaders, the Washington Jewish community, the local Jewish Community Relations Council and other faith groups that pressed for his release.

“But ultimately – ultimately – the decision to arrange for and secure my release was made in the Oval Office,”said Gross, reserving special praise for President Obama and his National Security Council.

Vann said improved U.S.-Cuba relations would have a rollover effect, removing obstacles to U.S. ties with other Latin American countries — and this in turn would remove tensions that have affected Jewish communities.

“Cuba and Venezuela have a very interdependent relationship,” she said. “Anti-Semitism and anti-American rhetoric are being used by the regime in Venezuela, and with this that’s being undermined.”

Daniel Mariaschin, who directs B’nai B’rith International, a group with a strong Latin American presence, said a new era of ties “will raise the profile of Latin American communities and interest in those communities.”

In a deal American officials said was technically separate from the Gross release, the United States and Cuba agreed to exchange the three remaining incarcerated members of the “Cuban Five,” a Florida-based spy ring, for an American spy held in Cuba for 20 years and whose identity remains a secret.

Obama insisted that Gross was not part of the spy exchange and that, in fact, his imprisonment held up changes to the U.S. Cuba relationship he had intended on initiating years ago.

“While I’ve been prepared to take additional steps for some time, a major obstacle stood in our way,” the president said, referring to Gross’ “wrongful imprisonment.”

Republicans who have opposed easing the Cuba embargo blasted the deal.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), the son of Cuban immigrants, told Fox News that Obama was “the worst negotiator since at least Jimmy Carter, and maybe in the history of this country.”

Many Jewish groups welcomed the deal, however, and noted the political difficulties it must have created for the Obama administration.

“We know the decision to release the Cuban three was not an easy one,” the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations said in a statement. “We appreciate the efforts of President Obama and Vice President Biden in bringing this about.”

Gross is in ill health. He has lost more than 100 pounds since his incarceration and suffered from painful arthritis.

A senior administration official who spoke to reporters before Obama’s announcement said the Vatican played a key role in negotiating the deal, in part through Pope Francis’ pleas to Cuba to release Gross as a humanitarian gesture.

In a statement, the pope said he “wishes to express his warm congratulations for the historic decision taken by the Governments of the United States of America and Cuba to establish diplomatic relations, with the aim of overcoming, in the interest of the citizens of both countries, the difficulties which have marked their recent history.”

The administration official also noted the significance of the Jewish holiday season of freedom.

“We believe that Alan was wrongfully imprisoned and overjoyed that Alan will be reunited with his family in this holiday season of Hanukkah,” the official said.

 

Gross’ release, and changes in diplomatic ties, signals new day for Cuban Jews


Alan Gross was imprisoned while trying to connect Cuba’s isolated Jewish community to the wider world. The deal that got him released five years later may do just that and much more.

Gross’ flight home to suburban Washington on Wednesday with his wife, Judy, was part of a historic deal that overturns over five decades of U.S. policy isolating the Communist island nation helmed by the Castro brothers.

“We will end an outdated approach that for decades has failed to advance our interests and instead we will begin to normalize relations between our two countries,” President Obama said in announcing Gross’ release and radical changes in U.S. Cuba policy.

U.S. officials in a conference call outlined sweeping changes, including the resumption of full diplomatic relations, the opening of an embassy in Havana, and a loosening of trade and travel restrictions.

Dina Siegel Vann, the director of the American Jewish Committee’s Belfer Institute for Latino and Latin American Affairs, said Gross’ release and the opening of ties with Cuba is a twofer for the Jews: In addition to the benefits accrued to all Cubans from open relations, she said, Cuban Jews “will have stronger ties to Jewish organizations, they will be much more in the open.” An estimated 1,000 to 1,500 Jews live in Cuba.

Gross, who is now 65, was arrested in 2009 after setting up Internet access for the Cuban Jewish community while working as a contractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development. Never formally charged with espionage, Gross was convicted in 2009 for “crimes against the state.”

Back in the United States on Wednesday, Gross held a news conference, which he began with the greeting “Chag sameach,” noting that his release coincided with the first day of Hanukkah. He thanked political leaders, the Washington Jewish community, the local Jewish Community Relations Council and other faith groups that pressed for his release.

“But ultimately – ultimately – the decision to arrange for and secure my release was made in the Oval Office,”said Gross, reserving special praise for President Obama and his National Security Council.

Vann said improved U.S.-Cuba relations would have a rollover effect, removing obstacles to U.S. ties with other Latin American countries — and this in turn would remove tensions that have affected Jewish communities.

“Cuba and Venezuela have a very interdependent relationship,” she said. “Anti-Semitism and anti-American rhetoric are being used by the regime in Venezuela, and with this that’s being undermined.”

Daniel Mariaschin, who directs B’nai B’rith International, a group with a strong Latin American presence, said a new era of ties “will raise the profile of Latin American communities and interest in those communities.”

In a deal American officials said was technically separate from the Gross release, the United States and Cuba agreed to exchange the three remaining incarcerated members of the “Cuban Five,” a Florida-based spy ring, for an American spy held in Cuba for 20 years and whose identity remains a secret.

Obama insisted that Gross was not part of the spy exchange and that, in fact, his imprisonment held up changes to the U.S. Cuba relationship he had intended on initiating years ago.

“While I’ve been prepared to take additional steps for some time, a major obstacle stood in our way,” the president said, referring to Gross’ “wrongful imprisonment.”

Republicans who have opposed easing the Cuba embargo blasted the deal.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), the son of Cuban immigrants, told Fox News that Obama was “the worst negotiator since at least Jimmy Carter, and maybe in the history of this country.”

Many Jewish groups welcomed the deal, however, and noted the political difficulties it must have created for the Obama administration.

“We know the decision to release the Cuban three was not an easy one,” the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations said in a statement. “We appreciate the efforts of President Obama and Vice President Biden in bringing this about.”

Gross is in ill health. He has lost more than 100 pounds since his incarceration and suffered from painful arthritis.

A senior administration official who spoke to reporters before Obama’s announcement said the Vatican played a key role in negotiating the deal, in part through Pope Francis’ pleas to Cuba to release Gross as a humanitarian gesture.

In a statement, the pope said he “wishes to express his warm congratulations for the historic decision taken by the Governments of the United States of America and Cuba to establish diplomatic relations, with the aim of overcoming, in the interest of the citizens of both countries, the difficulties which have marked their recent history.”

The administration official also noted the significance of the Jewish holiday season of freedom.

“We believe that Alan was wrongfully imprisoned and overjoyed that Alan will be reunited with his family in this holiday season of Hanukkah,” the official said.

Alan Gross credits Jewish efforts for his release from Cuba


Newly released from prison in Cuba, Alan Gross thanked his wife, his lawyer, the Jewish community, President Barack Obama and numerous others in helping secure his freedom.

Speaking at a news conference Wednesday in Washington, Gross opened his statement with a Hanukkah greeting and a thank you to the president.

“Chag sameach,” he said. “What a blessing to be a citizen of the United States of America. Thank you President Obama for everything you have done today.”

He credited the advocacy by his wife of 44 years, Judy Gross, and his lawyer, Scott Gilbert, for getting him out of prison. He also thanked the Jewish community.

“To the Washington Jewish community, Ron Halber in particular and his staff at the Jewish Community Relations Council, all of the executive directors, staff and volunteers of participating JCRCs, federations, synagogues, schools, and other Jewish, Christian and Muslim organizations nationwide, God bless you and thank you,” Gross said. “It was crucial to my survival knowing that I was not forgotten. Your prayers and actions have been comforting, reassuring, and sustaining.”

In a deal that American officials said was technically separate from Gross’ release, the United States and Cuba agreed to exchange the three remaining incarcerated members of the “Cuban Five,” a Florida-based spy ring, for an American spy held in Cuba for 20 years and whose identity remains a secret.

It came, too, as the United States and Cuba agreed to re-establish full diplomatic ties that were severed in early 1961.

Gross, a Jewish-American who had been in detention in Cuba for five years of a 15-year term for crimes against the state, originally went to the island nation to do contract work for the U.S. government and help connect Cuban Jews to the outside world.

He suffered health problems during his imprisonment, and in his statement referenced his significant weight loss and the loss of some teeth.

“Ultimately, the decision to arrange for and secure my release was made in the Oval Office. To President Obama and the NSC staff, thank you,” Gross said. “A judicious lesson that I have learned from this experience is that freedom is not free.”

Gross expressed fondness for the Cuban people, saying they were not responsible for his ordeal and that he is pained “to see them treated so unjustly as one consequence of two governments’ mutually belligerent policies.”

He hailed Obama’s announcement that Havana and Washington now would resume diplomatic relations.

Remarks by Obama at afternoon Chanukah reception


AUDIENCE MEMBER:  Happy Hanukkah, Mr. President!  

THE PRESIDENT:  Well, Happy Hanukkah to you!  You stole my line.   Happy Hanukkah, everybody. 

AUDIENCE:  Happy Hannukah.

MRS. OBAMA:  Welcome to the White House.  I want to welcome the members of Congress who are here today.  We’ve got some Bronfman Fellows who are here from the State of Israel.  Obviously, the bonds between our two countries are unbreakable, and with the help of young people, they’re only going to grow stronger in the years to come. 

THE PRESIDENT: Every year, Michelle and I like to invite just a few friends over for a little Hanukkah celebration. Nothing fancy.  Actually, this is the second year we’ve invited so many friends that we’re hosting two parties instead of one.  This is our first party — it is the best party. Don’t tell the others, though.

I want to begin with today’s wonderful news.  I’m told that in the Jewish tradition, one of the great mitzvahs is pidyon shvuyim.  My Hebrew is not perfect, but I get points for trying.  But it describes the redemption, the freeing, of captives.  And that’s what we’re celebrating today, because after being unjustly held in Cuba for more than five years, American Alan Gross is free.  

Alan has dedicated his life to others — to helping people around the world develop their communities and improve their lives, including Israelis and Palestinians.  He’s a man of deep faith who once worked for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington.  Five years ago, he was arrested by Cuban authorities simply for helping ordinary Cubans, including Cuba’s small Jewish community, access information on the Internet.  And ever since, those who have loved and cared for Alan never stopped working to bring him home:  Judy, his wife of 44 years, and their daughters, including his oldest daughter who walked down the aisle without her dad on her wedding day.  His mother, who passed away this year without being able to see her son one last time.  His whole family, including his sister-in-law, Gwen Zuares, who joins us here today — where is Gwen?  Hey, Gwen.  His rabbi, his friends at his congregation in Maryland, Am Kolel, who kept him in their prayers every Shabbat.  Jewish and other faith leaders across the country and around the world, including His Holiness Pope Francis.  And members of Congress and those of us in the United States government. 

And Alan has fought back.  He spoke out from his cell, he went on a hunger strike.  With his health deteriorating, his family worried he might not be able to make it out alive.  But he never gave up, and we never gave up.      

As I explained earlier, after our many months of discussion with the Cuban government, Alan was finally released this morning on humanitarian grounds.  I spoke to him on his flight.  He said he was willing to interrupt his corned beef sandwich to talk to me. I told him he had mustard in his mustache; I couldn’t actually see it. But needless to say, he was thrilled.  And he landed at Andrews in a plane marked “The United States of America.”   

He’s going to be getting the medical attention that he needs.  He’s back where he belongs — in America, with his family, home for Hanukkah.  And I can’t think of a better way to mark this holiday, with its message that freedom is possible, than with the historic changes that I announced today in our Cuba policy. These are changes that are rooted in America’s commitment to freedom and democracy for all the Cuban people, including its small but proud Jewish community.  And Alan’s remarks about the need for these changes was extremely powerful.

So what brings us together is not just lox and latkes although I have heard the latkes here are outstanding. Am I wrong?  Not as good as your mom’s, but they're good. 

We’re here to celebrate a story that took place more than 2,000 years ago, when a small group of Maccabees rose up to defeat their far more powerful oppressors.  In the face of overwhelming odds, they reclaimed their city and the right to worship as they chose.  And in their victory, they found there wasn’t enough oil to keep the flame in their temple alive.  But they lit the oil they had and, miraculously, the flame that was supposed to burn for just one night burned for eight.  The Hanukkah story teaches us that our light can shine brighter than we could ever imagine with faith, and it’s up to us to provide that first spark. 

This is something that Inbar Vardi and Mouran Ibrahim know very well.  They are Israeli ninth-graders at Hand in Hand, which is a bilingual school in Jerusalem. For more than a decade, it’s brought Jewish and Arab children together. So Inbar is Jewish; Mouran is Muslim.   

Just two weeks ago, their school’s first-grade classroom was set on fire by arsonists.  In the weeks that followed, they and their classmates could have succumbed to anger or cynicism, but instead they built this menorah, one of four that we brought here from Israel this year.  Each of its branches are dedicated to one of the values their school is founded on — values like community and dignity and equality and peace.  Inbar and Mouran flew here from Israel along with Rebecca Bardach, the mother of a first-grader and second-grader at Hand in Hand, and in just a few minutes the three of them are going to join us in lighting the Hanukkah candles here at the White House. 

So Inbar and Mouran and their fellow students teach us a critical lesson for this time in our history:  The light of hope must outlast the fires of hate.  That’s what the Hanukkah story teaches us.  That’s what our young people can teach us — that one act of faith can make a miracle.  That love is stronger than hate.  That peace can triumph over conflict.  And during this Festival of Lights, let’s commit ourselves to making some small miracles ourselves and then sharing them with the world.   

I now want to invite Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson to the podium who can lead us in the blessings for the candle lighting.  Rabbi. 

Alan Gross, ‘normalization’ of U.S.-Cuba relations and the American spy flying under the radar


The news on Dec. 17 about the sudden thaw in diplomatic relations between Washington and Havana was so surprising that we really won’t know for months — or years — what the impact will be. In the meantime, here are seven key points about the deal:

1. The timing made sense.

President Barack Obama knew he would draw sharp criticism from powerful Republican and Democratic politicians, and in just a few weeks, Republicans will officially take control of the Senate, giving them a much louder microphone. If Obama had any hesitation about political blowback from an outgoing Congress, his feet would be a lot colder in February.

He also found himself in the position of trying to accomplish something without hurting his party’s chances of retaining the White House in 2016. In that regard, timing was, again, important. In six months, most Americans will forget anything ever happened. It helps that the political gamble may not have been huge — and perhaps not even a gamble. Polls indicate a majority of Americans support Obama’s detente.

2. Gross was not the most valuable American in captivity.

Gross is the face of this deal, but perhaps the real ace in the hole was Rolando Sarraff Trujillo, a Cuban-born spy who was apparently a treasured American intelligence agent. It appears that Trujillo, like Gross, was always going to be a crucial piece of any larger diplomatic breakthrough. All we know about him is that he was in a Cuban prison for nearly 20 years and was working for the Cuban government as a cryptologist before the CIA turned him.

Trujillo helped uncover numerous Cuban intelligence operations in the U.S. and apparently even helped bring down the “Cuban Five,” intelligence agents who were arrested in Florida in 1998 and convicted and imprisoned for espionage. The three remaining Cuban prisoners (one died and one was released) were also always going to be part of any prisoner deal or normalization.

3. The normalization deal favors Cuba.

Washington demanded little from Havana in exchange for normalized relations and the privilege of hosting an American embassy in Havana. We don’t know whether Cuba would release Gross without a larger detente, but if the two aspects of the deal are analyzed separately, Havana clearly won the normalization part. It held on to its communist political and economic systems, and did not renounce any of its routine human rights abuses.

The extent of Cuba’s compromise in this deal was a yet-to-be-fulfilled commitment to release 53 prisoners being held in Cuban prisons.

4. The U.S. owed it to Gross to make a deal, even a bad one.

The State Department put the administration in this position when it sent Gross to Cuba in 2009 on what can be called a crackpot, democracy-building mission. Gross had zero experience or training in covert or discreet fieldwork. In Cuba, setting up illegal Internet networks without attracting attention requires someone with operational experience in totalitarian countries; Gross was not that person. He’s a telecommunications expert who had a passion for bringing 21st-century technology to underserved communities.

5. U.S.-Cuba relations are still far from normal.

The focus on the restoration of diplomatic ties between the U.S. and Cuba distracts from the fact that the deal does little to restore any type of open economic relationship. Only Congress can lift America’s economic embargo on Cuba and, even if that is lifted, only the Cuban government can pull its own population out of abject poverty by opening its market.

A fact sheet put together by the White House notes American businesses will be authorized to export “certain building materials for private residential construction, goods for use by private sector entrepreneurs and agricultural equipment for small farmers.” U.S. banks and financial institutions will be able to open accounts at Cuban banks, and American travelers will be able to use credit and debit cards in Cuba. But the impact of these moves likely will be marginal.

6. Life in Cuba still will be miserable for the average Cuban.

American telecommunications companies will be able to export equipment that will (hopefully) be used to connect more Cubans to the Internet. The big question, though, is whether the Castro regime will give Cubans any meaningful access to the outside world.

The agreement does little, if anything, to change the totalitarian nature of the regime. It wasn’t designed to do that. But maybe it’s the first step. Supporters of this deal have long said that increasing the amount of interaction between Cubans and Americans (and American goods) may also increase the penetration of American ideas into Cuba.

7. American Jews made sure Gross’ freedom was a deal-breaker.

Addressing the media in Washington, Gross sounded thrilled to be home. After five years in confinement, he was eager to thank everyone who helped make the deal happen, including the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) and its executive director, Ron Halber, who was among Gross’ loudest advocates, along with his wife, Judy, and attorney, Scott Gilbert.

Halber organized signature campaigns that were sent to top White House officials, led vigils outside a Cuban government office in Washington and met with State Department officials to discuss Gross’ fate. Rabbi Steve Gutow, president and CEO of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (the parent body of the JCRC), told the Journal in September that American Jews had to continue pushing for Gross’ release in order to ensure he remained a top priority on the State Department’s to-do list.

We may never know the extent of the impact Jewish leaders had in ensuring that Washington demanded Gross’ release as part of a larger deal, but their work surely helped keep his fate at the forefront of the minds of key players in Washington.

Cuba releases American Alan Gross as U.S. prepares to overhaul Cuba policy


Cuba has released American aid worker Alan Gross after five years in prison in a reported prisoner exchange with Havana that the United States said on Wednesday heralds an overhaul of U.S. policy toward Cuba.

A U.S. official said Gross was released on humanitarian grounds. CNN reported a prisoner exchange that also included Cuba releasing a U.S. intelligence source and the United States releasing three Cuban intelligence agents.

U.S. President Barack Obama was due to make a statement at noon (1700 GMT) on Cuba, the White House said, and U.S. official said Obama would announce a shift in Cuba policy. Cuban President Raul Castro was also set to make a statement at that time.

[RELATED: Alan Gross, the forgotten man (Nov. 5)]

Cuba arrested Gross, now 65, on Dec. 3, 2009, and later convicted the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) subcontractor to 15 years in prison for importing banned technology and trying to establish clandestine Internet service for Cuban Jews.

The United States and Cuba have been locked in hostilities for more than half a century, and Obama is sure to face howls of protest in Washington and within the Cuban exile community in Miami for freeing the Cuban intelligence agents after 16 years in prison. Their freedom will be hailed as a resounding victory at home for Raul Castro.

The payoff for Obama was the release of Gross, whose lawyer and family have described him as mentally vanquished, gaunt, hobbling and missing five teeth.

Cuba arrested Gross in 2009 and later sentenced him to 15 years for attempting to establish clandestine Internet service for Cuban Jews under a program run by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). His case raised alarms about USAID's practice of hiring private citizens to carry out secretive assignments in hostile places.

Cuba considers USAID another instrument of continual U.S. harassment dating to the 1959 revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power. Fidel Castro retired in 2008, handing power to his brother Raul.

The United States has said it wants to promote democracy in communist-led Cuba, a one-party state that represses political opponents and controls the media. American officials accused Cuba of taking Gross hostage as a ploy to get their spies back.

The three Cuban intelligence agents, jailed since 1998, are: Gerardo Hernandez, 49, Antonio Guerrero, 56, and Ramon Labañino, 51. Two others had been released before on completing their sentences – Rene Gonzalez, 58, and Fernando Gonzalez, 51.

CHANGE IN RELATIONS?

The so-called Cuban Five were convicted for spying on anti-Castro exile groups in Florida and monitoring U.S. military installations. They are hailed as anti-terrorist heroes in Cuba for defending the country by infiltrating exile groups in Florida at a time when anti-Castro extremists were bombing Cuban hotels.

Two were due to be released in coming years but Gerardo Hernandez, the leader, received a double life sentence for conspiracy in Cuba's shooting down of two U.S. civilian aircraft in 1996, killing four Cuban-Americans.

The United States had flatly refused to swap Gross for the agents, but the White House came under increasing pressure to intervene from Gross' allies and foreign policy experts as Gross' health deteriorated.

Gross had already lost some 100 pounds when he went on a five-day hunger strike in April, and upon his 65th birthday in May he vowed to die rather than turn 66 in prison.

Gross' release could lead Obama to begin normalizing relations with Cuba, which would stir fierce opposition from well-financed and politically organized Cuban exiles, who resist engagement with the communist-led island.

Although Obama said “we have to continue to update our policies” on Cuba over a year ago, until now he had yet to signal change.

The president has authority to unilaterally gut the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba and allow U.S. citizens to travel freely to the island. His State Department can remove Cuba from a list of state sponsors of terrorism, an outdated designation that carries with it further economic sanctions.

Proponents of normalization note that Cuba has blamed the embargo for its economic shortcomings for decades and uses U.S. aggression as justification for stifling dissent.

Despite bilateral animosity, the two countries have been quietly engaged on a host of issues such as immigration, drug interdiction and oil-spill mitigation.

Jewish community responds to release of Alan Gross


Cuba has released American aid worker Alan Gross after five years in prison in a reported prisoner exchange with Havana that the United States said on Wednesday heralds an overhaul of U.S. policy toward Cuba. Below are reactions from the Jewish community:

Simon Wiesenthal Center

“There is no greater mitzvah(good deed) than Pidyon Shivuyim, freeing a captive. On this first day of Chanukah, the Simon Wiesenthal Center expresses its gratitude to President Obama and his administration for securing the release of Alan Gross”

– Rabbis Marvin Hier and Abraham Cooper, founder and dean and associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center

Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA)

“We are elated that Alan Gross has finally been released after five long difficult years in Cuba and can now return home to his family and a community that has prayed for his freedom. We are only as free as those of us who are suffering – and today, with Alan’s release, we are all a bit freer. Alan was working with the small Cuban Jewish community under this same mindset, helping this isolated group gain better access to the internet.

“We thank the U.S. government for its work to secure his release and all those who advocated on Alan’s behalf through letter campaigns, donating to his legal defense fund established by the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) of Greater Washington, participating in regular vigils on his behalf and writing to Alan in prison to let him know that he was never forgotten. We are especially grateful for the leadership of the JCRC of Greater Washington and its executive director Ron Halber in all of these advocacy efforts.

“During his imprisonment, Alan’s health severely deteriorated; he lost 100 pounds, developed severe hip pain leaving him unable to walk and lost vision in his right eye. We pray now for his health and swift recovery. We share in his family’s joy of welcoming Alan home and wish them all the best moving forward.”

– Susan Turnbull and Rabbi Steve Gutow, Chair and President, respectively, of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA)

B’nai B’rith

B’nai B’rith International warmly welcomes, and is relieved by the news of, Alan Gross’ release from a Cuban prison after five years. The United States and Cuban governments announced this morning that Gross will be returned to America in exchange for three Cubans jailed in Florida.

Gross was arrested in 2009 while working to set up Internet access for the Cuban-Jewish community as a contractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development.

B’nai B’rith is grateful for the efforts of the Administration and all those who assisted in facilitating the high-level discussions leading to Gross’ release. We are thinking of Gross, his family and his friends on the occasion of his release, especially coming during the holiday of Chanukah.

Agudath Israel of America

Chanukah is a time when we offer praise and thanks to the Almighty for His blessings and miracles.  The release and return of Alan Gross from Cuban incarceration is truly a modern day Chanukah miracle, and it fills us with deep gratitude to, in the words of the Amidah, “He Who frees captives.” Mr. Gross' expedited liberation seemed a distant dream, and now it is a dream come true.

We express our heartfelt thanks to President Obama, whose dedicated and determined efforts led to Mr. Gross' release. And we pray that Mr. Gross will adjust to his return to freedom enveloped in the love and support of his family and friends.

WATCH LIVE: Alan Gross gives statement on release


Who is Alan Gross and what did he do?


Alan Gross, a 65-year-old U.S. foreign aid worker freed from a Cuban prison on Wednesday, was arrested in Cuba in 2009 and sentenced to 15 years for importing banned technology and trying to establish clandestine Internet service for Cuban Jews.

[Related: An in-depth look into Gross' time in Cuba from Nov. 5]

Here are some facts about Gross:

Gross was a longtime supporter of Jewish causes and a career development consultant who traveled the world on private contracts before taking his Cuba assignment. He had only once previously visited Cuba and spoke very limited Spanish.

Gross worked for Maryland-based Development Alternatives Inc (DAI), which had a $6 million deal with the U.S. Agency for International Aid (USAID) to promote democracy and support political dissidents. Gross signed two contracts with DAI paying him a total of $590,000 to deliver telecommunications equipment over 20 months.

During five trips to Cuba in 2009, Gross imported banned satellite communications devices and other high-tech gear in his luggage and helped install it at Jewish centers in Havana, Santiago and Camaguey.

Cuban officials arrested him in his hotel room on Dec. 3, 2009, just before he had planned to return home.

Gross sued DAI and the U.S. government for $60 million, saying he was inadequately informed of the dangers and illegality of his mission. He settled with DAI for an undisclosed sum and a judge threw out his suit against the United States, a decision upheld on appeal.

While incarcerated, Gross morphed from a gadget geek to an embittered critic of the U.S. and Cuban governments. He lost 100 pounds (46 kg) from his original 254 pounds (115 kg). His spirits dimmed after his mother died of cancer in June, and he stopped seeing doctors, his wife, or officials of the U.S. interests section shortly thereafter.

Freed prisoner Alan Gross loves Judaism


Alan Gross was freed from a Cuban prison on Wednesday after five years, much of that time in isolation. His release was part of a prisoner exchange deal between Cuba and the United States that President Barack Obama announced marks the start of improved relations between the two longtime enemy countries. Gross' first public statement was to say to America, “Chag Sameach,” as he began a televised press conference from his attorney's Washington, D.C. offices on the first day of Chanukah.

Gross, 65, included numerous Jewish references in his speech to reporters. His  wife, Judy, who had worked tirelessly for his release, stood at his side. Gross was missing several teeth.

He referred to his attorney, Scott Gilbert, who reportedly helped procure his freedom, as his “personal Moses” and he gave a shout-out to his “Shabbat group” as he thanked everybody who has helped him during his captivity.

Gross traveled to Cuba in 2009 while working as a subcontractor for the United States Agency for International Development. His assignment was to set up uncensored, albeit illegal, internet connections for Cuban Jews. He was arrested nine days into his trip and charged with espionage.

More on Alan Gross' time in Cuba here.

Clip of press conference

Obama: ‘Conversations’ about freeing Alan Gross have been ongoing


President Obama said the United States has been “in conversations” about trying to free American-Jewish contractor Alan Gross from a Cuban jail.

“We’ve been in conversations about how we can get Alan Gross home for quite some time,” Obama told Jorge Ramos of the Florida-based Fusion television network, a sister to ABC.

Obama said the conversations were through a “variety of channels,” but did not say whether that includes the Cuban government.

“We continue to be concerned about him. We think that he shouldn’t have been held in the first place,” Obama told Ramos.

Gross, 65, of Potomac, Md., earlier this month began his sixth year of a 15-year prison term in Cuba for “crimes against the state.”

He reportedly is in ill health and has lost more than 100 pounds since his incarceration, and has suffered from painful arthritis.

In August, Gross said he could no longer take life in prison and reportedly said goodbye to his family.

Gross was leaving Cuba when he was arrested in December 2009 for setting up Internet access for the Jewish community there as a contractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Fusion offers news, pop culture and satire on its digital network.

Appeals court upholds dismissal of Alan Gross lawsuit against U.S.


A federal appeals court upheld the dismissal of a lawsuit filed against the U.S. government by Alan Gross, the American-Jewish contractor imprisoned in Cuba since 2009.

In a 3-0 decision Friday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit said the government cannot be sued for injuries that occurred in another country.

The ruling affirmed a lower court judge’s dismissal of the $60 million lawsuit in May 2013.

Gross and his wife, Judy, filed the suit in November 2012 against the U.S. government and a government contractor charging that Gross should have been better trained and informed of the risks before going to Cuba to set up Internet access for the Jewish community there.

The Grosses settled in mid-May with Development Alternatives Inc., a Maryland-based contractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development, for an undisclosed amount. Gross was working for the USIA.

Gross, 65, of Potomac, Md., was leaving Cuba when he was arrested in December 2009 for “crimes against the state.” He spoke virtually no Spanish and traveled to Cuba five times under his own name before his arrest. He is serving a 15-year sentence.

Sens. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), and Tom Udall (D-N.M.) met last week with Gross for two hours.

The senators told The Associated Press that there was no indication that a development in releasing Gross was imminent. Cuba has expressed an interest in negotiating a trade of Gross for three Cubans who are jailed in the United States on espionage charges.

In August, Gross said he could no longer take life in prison and reportedly said goodbye to his family.

U.S. senator sees Alan Gross as ‘closer’ to release


Alan Gross, an American government contractor jailed in Cuba for crimes against the state may be closer to returning home, in part because he has threatened to end his life if he is not released, a U.S. senator said on Tuesday.

The detention of Gross since December 2009 has increased tensions in already troubled U.S.-Cuban relations and prevented the historic adversaries from resolving wider differences.

[Will the Obama administration let Alan Gross die in a Cuban prison?]

Gross, 65, a former subcontractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development, is serving a 15-year sentence for illegally providing Internet equipment and service to Cuban Jewish groups under a U.S. program promoting political change that the Cuban government considers subversive.

Senator Jeff Flake, a Republican from Arizona, and fellow Senator Tom Udall, a Democrat from New Mexico, met with Gross for two hours on Tuesday at his hospital prison in Havana.

Asked if he was optimistic about progress toward Gross' release, Flake, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told reporters, “I do feel we are closer there.”

“One, because of what Alan Gross has said himself. This is going to end one way or another. We've gone on five years and I think any benefit that the Cuban government may have seen (from holding him) has to have evaporated by now,” Flake said.

Gross has vowed not to spend his birthday next May in jail, threatening to end his own life, his wife and lawyer say.

However, Flake gave no indication the United States and Cuba were any closer to entering talks about Gross.

The United States has repeatedly called for Gross' release but rejected Cuban offers to enter talks that would link Gross to the cases of three Cuban agents serving long prison terms in the United States for spying on Cuban exile groups in Florida.

Once a plump 254 pounds (115 kg), Gross has lost more than 100 pounds (45 kg), developed severe hip pain and lost most of the vision in his right eye, lawyer Scott Gilbert, has said.

Gross' wife, Judy, has blamed U.S. President Barack Obama for failing to do enough to secure Gross' release.

Flake has long advocated that the United States end its 52-year-old economic embargo of Cuba and normalize relations. His influence may grow in January when the Republicans formally take over the majority in the U.S. Senate from the Democrats.

Udall also supports normalizing relations to create better business opportunities for U.S. companies.

(Reporting by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Tom Brown)

An in-depth look at Alan Gross’ time in Cuban prison


UPDATE [Dec. 17, 2014]: ” target=”_blank”>BringAlanHome.org. His wife, Judy, said in a September interview that her husband is now so despondent about ever being freed that he’s “passively wasting away,” refusing visitors and also the care packages they could bring.

“I try to get him to change [his attitude], but I don’t have any evidence for him to say, ‘This is how it’s going to change,’ ” Judy Gross said. “There’s no evidence that anything is happening.”

Anti-Castro hardliners like New Jersey Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez — who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee — and Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio — who sits on that committee — oppose any trade for Gross and demand that Cuba release him unconditionally on humanitarian grounds. The odds of the Cubans doing so appear slim.

Instead, it appears Cuba’s government, as indicated by its inaction and according to multiple analysts and experts who spoke with the Journal, is prepared to let Gross die unless Cuba gets something in return for his freedom. 

If Gross sticks to his pledge to not spend his 66th birthday in captivity, his only hope of returning home alive lies with the Obama administration, which now has less than seven months to decide whether to take responsibility for a civilian contractor its own State Department sent to Cuba unprepared. 

Gross’ future also relies, to some extent, on a network of relatives, rabbis, synagogues and Jewish groups who are (and some who aren’t) pressing Washington to secure his release, as well as on the government officials that so far appear to be doing nothing to free him.

The clock is officially ticking on the life of Alan Gross, and Cuba has made clear what Washington will have to give if it wants him back. The question now is: Will the Obama administration make a deal?

A pawn in a geopolitical game

As a technology expert and international development specialist with experience working in places like Azerbaijan, Bulgaria and Gaza, Gross had brought Internet and technological consulting to remote communities across the world for 25 years before his trips to Cuba in 2009. In Cuba, however, unlike on previous jobs,  Gross was required to lie and say he was working on behalf of a Jewish humanitarian group, according to an investigative report by Associated Press correspondent Desmond Butler. 

Cuban authorities arrested Gross in his Havana hotel on Dec. 3, 2009, the ninth day of his trip, just moments after he ended a phone call with his wife, Judy, who since the arrest has led a furious effort to pressure Havana and now Washington to resolve the crisis and bring her husband home. Gross was jailed first in the notorious Villa Marista prison in Havana. One month later, he was moved to a maximum security unit in a military hospital, where he was held for 14 months, until the government, after a two-day trial with no jury and four judges, convicted him of subversion and sentenced him to 15 years in prison. 

Since 1959, when the communist revolution on this island just 90 miles off Florida’s coast brought to power Fidel Castro’s totalitarian, anti-American regime, relations between the two countries have been toxic, with the U.S. government enforcing a trade embargo and orchestrating — with the help of Cuban exiles in Florida — several covert missions aimed at toppling the Cuban government and assassinating Castro.

Alan and Judy Gross with their daughters, Nina and Shira. Gross family photo

Cuba, for its part, has been a serial violator of human rights; Fidel and his brother Raúl have run it as a police state, and for two weeks in 1962, brought the United States and the Soviet Union to the brink of war when Fidel briefly convinced the Russians to house nuclear missiles on the island. 

Cuba’s government also continues to enjoy close relations with many American adversaries, including Russia, Iran, Venezuela and North Korea.

According to Gross’ trip reports obtained by the Associated Press, USAID had tasked him with setting up uncensored (and thus illegal) Internet connections for Cuban Jews. To the Cubans, this type of democracy-promotion mission run by USAID is akin to acts of espionage.  

Gross was not an obvious choice for the mission: He was a late-middle-aged technology expert, a humanitarian and a family man doing a risky job in a hostile country that ought to have required someone fluent in Spanish, which Gross was not, and experienced in covert — or at least discreet — fieldwork, which he also was not. 

In fact, it appears Gross received little, if any, training from USAID before traveling to Cuba carrying specialized mobile phone chips, SIM cards, satellite phones, wireless access points and large quantities of other modern information devices that, as Gross said in a May 2012 interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, could be bought in any Best Buy in America but are seen as a threat to state security in Cuba.

So now, Gross’ fate rests with a Cuban government that is vindictive yet fishing for a deal and a U.S. State Department that to date has shown no willingness to negotiate. Working, too, against Gross’ fortunes is a portion of the Cuban émigré population in the U.S. and Cuban-American politicians in Washington who oppose any normalization of relations or negotiation with the Castro regime. So far, the Obama administration has been unwilling, perhaps because of pressure from those groups, to offer the only deal that might bring Gross home — which would be to trade his freedom for one or more of three Cuban spies (the remaining members of the infamous Cuban Five) who were arrested in Florida in 1998 and have been convicted and imprisoned in the U.S. for espionage.

‘He’s passively taking his life’

Whenever Gross, on his trips for development projects, arrived in a new city with a Jewish community, one of his first destinations was always a local synagogue. “In his previous life he was a Jewish organizer and very active in the Jewish community,” Judy Gross said.

Rabbi Jack Luxemburg of Temple Beth Ami, a suburban Maryland congregation, recalled that when the Grosses were members there, Alan helped establish its first band and “played a mean mandolin.”

“He’s a very talented man, very soulful, very devoted to the Jewish people, to Jewish values,” Luxemburg said.

Allowed regular telephone access from his Havana prison, Gross speaks with Judy several times each week, and occasionally with key Jewish leaders in Washington and New York who advocate on his behalf.

Ronald Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington (JCRC), is one of Gross’ strongest advocates. He has helped organize petition drives drawing signatures from more than 10,000 people, led vigils outside a Cuban government office in Washington and met with State Department officials to discuss Gross’ imprisonment. He said he also has spoken with Gross numerous times on the phone.

“Sometimes I’ll read him the sports column about the Redskins or about the Nationals,” Halber said. “Usually we are talking about efforts to get him out.”

For months, Gross held out hope that the declining health of his mother, who died in Texas in June after a battle with lung cancer, would persuade Cuban authorities to let him go for a visit (he promised to return to prison). The Castro government refused both that request and a subsequent one to attend her funeral. 

Because of his mental state and his poor health, Gross has discouraged both of his daughters (Nina, 27, and Shira, 30) from visiting. Nevertheless in July, Nina, who lives in Oregon, went with her mother to Havana for three days to see her father for the first time in more than four years.

“That was very, very tough emotionally for everybody, to see the two of them so happy together and then to see them have to say goodbye … not knowing if you’re going to see each other again,” Judy said. “Imagine that — hugging your father and sobbing.”

A spokesperson in the office of Gross’ attorney, Scott Gilbert, said that Gross has “strongly discouraged” a visit from Shira, who since her father was arrested was diagnosed with and underwent successful treatment for cancer.

When Judy visits, Cuban authorities allow the couple to spend a day in a home outside of Havana, where they can enjoy a measure of privacy and a fresh meal, notwithstanding the ever-present ear of the government. “We know they are still listening,” Judy said. “There’s a guard outside of every door.”

Aside from that fleeting respite, Gross lives in a 12-by-12-foot room for 23 hours a day, along with two Cuban inmates. His daily diet, Judy said, consists of a “gooey egg” for breakfast, and rice, beans and chicken for other meals — fruit and vegetables are a rare luxury. “He’s lost so much weight. It’s not very appetizing food,” she said. “A couple of times there have been little things crawling in his food, so he doesn’t eat all the time.”

Judy used to send him care packages filled with books, magazines and healthy food through the U.S. Interests Section in Havana. Earlier this year, though, Gross began to refuse visitors as a sign of his disgust with the U.S. government for not negotiating his release; before that, he went on a hunger strike to protest his detention and “the lack of any reasonable or valid effort to resolve this shameful ordeal,” as he said in the statement released by his family in April.

“He goes through all kinds of emotions, from feeling very, very distraught; very, very pessimistic; hopeless; angry,” Judy said. 

Although media reports and Gross’ self-imposed May 2015 deadline suggest that he may be suicidal, Judy said her husband is simply losing the will to live and is  “passively taking his life.”

A ‘trusting fool’ or James Bond?

After Congress passed the Helms-Burton Act in 1996, which authorized the State Department to fund programs and missions aimed to weaken the Castro regime, Havana’s government declared the law illegal, meaning anyone in Cuba operating under the Helms-Burton banner became a state threat.

The Cuban government, due to its justified paranoia that the U.S. is always working to undermine its hold on Cuban society, considers even civilian USAID contractors to be in the same category as spies. Stephen Kaplitt, a former USAID attorney and State Department adviser, wrote in a December 2013 piece in Politico that he was “stunned” when he learned that the State Department had sent Gross to a hostile country to perform discreet work viewed by the Cubans as subversion.

“The simple act of plugging in a modem [in Cuba] suddenly becomes ‘imperialist aggression,’ ” Kaplitt wrote in Politico. “None of this was explained to Gross before he accepted his assignment.” At worst, Kaplitt said, Gross believed he could be deported if caught, certainly not imprisoned on charges of espionage and sedition.

While Gross’ own notes, which he took after each of his trips to Cuba, indicate that he had become increasingly aware of the “risky business” of setting up Wi-Fi there, the State Department appears to have concealed from him its own goal: to advance the collapse of the Castro regime. 

Asked for comment, a State Department spokesperson declined to answer specific questions but maintained that Gross’ release “remains a top priority of the United States.” 

Gross’ notes further indicate that he enlisted the help of other American Jews on mission trips to transport his large amount of communications equipment in small increments — had he carried one large bundle of high-tech devices, it would have more quickly tipped off Cuban customs agents. His own notes suggest he may not be quite the “trusting fool” he said he was at his trial in 2011, but he was also no James Bond or Jason Bourne.

Robert David Booth, a former State Department special agent and deputy director for the Office of Counterintelligence from 1996 until 2002, wrote to the Journal in an email that Cuba’s intelligence service is so suspicious of visiting Americans that it will monitor their “every activity” and keep tabs on them “from the moment a U.S. citizen visitor leaves the airport.”

Booth, who is releasing a book in December about his counterintelligence experience during 28 years of service, believes that whoever signed off on Gross’ mission “seemed to have been dismissive of Castro’s paranoia of most things American and the Cuban intelligence service’s mission and capabilities.”

Why won’t Washington act?

Senior Cuban foreign affairs official Josefina Vidal has said publicly her government would, without preconditions, negotiate Gross’ prison sentence. The U.S. would in turn have to discuss the fate of the so-called Cuban Five, three of whom have remained imprisoned in the U.S. since their arrest in 1998. They were charged with espionage and conspiracy to commit murder; two completed their sentences and returned to Cuba as heroes. The remaining three — all serving life terms — are a cause célèbre in Cuba. 

U.S. government officials, though, refuse to negotiate for Gross’ release. The irony is that although Gross is not actually a spy, it might have helped his case if he had been, as Washington may have been more likely to trade one of its own clandestine agents for the three Cubans.

A State Department official who requested anonymity seemed to imply as much in an email to the Jewish Journal, saying that Gross’ imprisonment is “not comparable” to that of the Cuban Five, even though “Cuban government interlocutors frequently attempt to compare” the two situations.

Professor Arturo Lopez-Levy, an expert on Latin America and a visiting scholar at Mills College in Oakland, believes that although the Cuban regime doesn’t want Gross to die in prison, it will let him if the U.S. continues to refuse to negotiate. “They will not release him unilaterally,” said Lopez-Levy, a Cuban Jew who worked as a political analyst for the Castro regime before immigrating to the United States, via Israel, in 2001. 

“You send somebody to create intimate networks circumventing the control of the government, you can say all you want about access to Internet, but if your policy is regime change, you cannot expect the Cuban government to say, ‘Oh this is only for people to read news and so people will read about Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony,’ ” Lopez-Levy said. 

Gross’ wife and Gilbert, his attorney, have of late focused most of their energy, without success, on attempting to push the U.S. government to deal with the Castro regime.

“To be blunt, we are getting nothing out of the State Department,” Judy Gross said. “The Cubans offered quite a long time ago to sit down and negotiate, so we ask what’s happening with that, and their answer is, ‘We are working on it.’ ” 

Washington-area Jewish activists, who for four years held a weekly vigil outside the Cuban Interests Section, also have begun to refocus their efforts from the Cuban government to their own. According to Rabbi Arnold Saltzman, a congregational rabbi in Maryland and JCRC board member who spoke with Gross in early September, the vigil’s leaders decided to temporarily suspend the gatherings out of concern that further demonstrations could endanger the regime’s current willingness to trade Gross.

Richard Shore, an attorney in Gilbert’s office working on Gross’ case, said that he’s working now to “press the Obama administration — to have the U.S. engage and to obtain a directive from the president to bring Alan Gross home.”

A deal for Gross has broad support in the Senate, where in November 2013, 66 senators signed a letter urging the president “to act expeditiously to take whatever steps are in the national interest to obtain his release.”

One week earlier, on Nov. 15, an opposing group of 14 senators led by Menendez and Rubio urged Obama to work “for Alan Gross’ immediate and unconditional release,” rejecting their colleagues’ willingness and the Cuban demand to negotiate a deal.

Together those two letters beg the question: If the White House likely would enjoy enough Senate support for negotiating with Cuba for Gross’ release, why hasn’t it done so?

Separately, the groundwork for détente already has been laid. Most policymakers, and certainly this White House, see little value in continuing to isolate Cuba in the hope that doing so will bring democracy and an open market to the island. A survey taken in January by the Atlantic Council, a nonpartisan think tank, similarly found that 75 percent of Americans “would like the United States to hold meetings with Cuban officials on issues of mutual concern.” 

But one important, and very loud, voice to the contrary is based in Florida, home to about 70 percent of this nation’s Cuban-American population, or 1.2 million Cuban ex-pats and their U.S.-born children and grandchildren. Florida is also a key swing state in many presidential elections, and though the state’s Cuban-American voters historically have voted overwhelmingly for Republican presidential candidates, Barack Obama — who won the state in 2012 by 73,000 votes, a less-than-1-percent margin — nearly split the Cuban vote with Republican candidate Mitt Romney. That split was viewed by some as a possible indicator of a seismic electoral shift.

Recent data also suggests that Florida’s Cuban-American community, most of which has historically opposed a thaw with the Cuban regime, may be open to a less adversarial relationship. 

“The Cuban-American community is not a monolith,” said Jose Azel, a senior researcher at the University of Miami’s Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies. Asked whether Cuban-Americans animated by anti-Castro politics have influenced the White House’s refusal to negotiate for Gross, Azel was ambiguous, but said the administration “should be using every tool in our diplomatic and pressure apparatus to get him released.” For Azel, though, one diplomatic tool that Obama should not employ is the carrot of returning Cuba’s three spies.

“That should never happen,” Azel said. “That’s not a comparable situation.” 

But the desire to pressure Havana for Gross’ freedom — without compromise — among the majority of the Cuban-American community and its elected officials, is, according to journalist Jeffrey Goldberg, a primary reason the State Department won’t negotiate.

“There’s a hardcore [group] of people who are opposed to any kind of normalization of relations with Cuba,” said Goldberg, a national correspondent for The Atlantic who has traveled frequently to Cuba and has met with Fidel Castro as well as with leaders of Cuba’s Jewish community. “The administration lives in fear of them.”

Most, if not all, attempts by Washington to loosen Cuban travel and trade restrictions have been met with fierce resistance by Washington’s Cuban-American politicians. Talks in any form with Cuban officials remain a political third rail.

When in 2011 the Obama administration unilaterally liberalized some U.S. travel to Cuba, allowing students and religious and cultural groups to visit the island, Florida politicians including Republican U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who was born in Havana and moved to Miami at 7, objected, saying it would do nothing to advance democracy and could financially bolster the regime. 

Democratic Senator Robert Menendez, a Cuban-American,  characterized Obama’s move as providing an “economic lifeline to the Castro regime” and, along with Ros-Lehtinen, Republican Rubio, Texas Republican and Cuban-American Ted Cruz and 10 other senators also signed the letter pressuring Obama to continue the current policy of demanding that Cuba unconditionally release Gross.

The views of the anti-normalization crowd, though, in addition to not being shared by most Americans, may no longer even be held by many Cuban-Americans. A June poll by Florida International University revealed that among 1,000 randomly selected Cuban-Americans living in Miami, respondents were nearly split when asked whether the U.S. should continue its trade embargo. A similar poll in 1991 had found 87 percent of Cuban-Americans supported the embargo.

The American public’s new willingness to engage with Cuba would be good news for Gross if the White House took it as a cue that it could politically survive a deal with the Castro regime. For critics of Washington’s policy of Cuban isolation, though, that the administration won’t negotiate indicates a lingering fear of political blowback.

“Everyone talks about the Jewish lobby,” Goldberg said. “Just wait until you see the power of the Cuban lobby.”

The view from the East Coast

The campaigns pile up: There’s the 2013 letter from 66 senators, another one signed by 300 rabbis and a campaign launched in September that has received more than 11,000 signatures on a letter to be sent directly to White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, pleading for Obama to negotiate for Gross’ freedom. 

Rabbi Steve Gutow is president and CEO of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA). With offices in Washington, D.C., and New York, JCPA is the nation’s foremost Jewish communal public affairs group and is leading the current letter campaign for the plea to Obama. In a September interview, Gutow spoke with care when asked if he feels the government could do more to bring Gross home.

“I do, without specifics,” Gutow said. “If they felt differently, they should respond, ‘Look we are doing more than you can imagine.’ Respond to us; respond to Congress.”

It’s not as if Washington never trades prisoners with authoritarian regimes. One recent example is the deal Washington struck for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl — with the Taliban. Bergdahl, an American soldier, went missing in Afghanistan in 2009 and in May, the Obama administration traded five Taliban prisoners held in Guantanamo Bay for his freedom, even though Bergdahl is now being investigated by the U.S. Army for allegedly deserting his post — a criminal offense.

Fred Burton, vice president of intelligence for Stratfor, a global intelligence and advisory firm based in Austin, Texas, was a special agent at the State Department from 1985 to 1999. Burton said in an Oct. 24 interview that backchannel negotiations for prisoner swaps happen frequently, even if “the media and the public [don’t] see.”

“The [State] Department goes out of their way to say, ‘We don’t negotiate,’ ” Burton said. “But in many ways this would be the kind of agenda item that we would always raise behind the scenes.” 

The American Jews who visit Havana

From Dec. 4 to 7, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles will bring 30 local community members to Cuba on a mission to help provide the island’s tiny Jewish community with religious items, some kosher food and basic over-the-counter medication that is hard to come by there.

It will be the third such trip to Cuba for the L.A. Federation in the past six years, and it is only one of many that Jewish groups across the United States go on — synagogues and Federations regularly bring Jews to Cuba to supply prayer books, kosher food, religious items, Tylenol and sterilized medical needles, which are used for diabetics and are in short supply there. Traveling under the auspices of a humanitarian mission also provides the legal loophole allowed under U.S. law that permits Americans to see Cuba — or at least a sanitized version of it.

Adela Dworin, the president of Cuba’s Jewish community, said in an Oct. 22 telephone interview from Havana that in the winter, when Americans can best tolerate Cuba’s weather, she regularly meets with visiting American-Jewish delegations — sometimes several per day — who bring Chanukah materials and other goods.

Stanley Falkenstein, who lives in Los Angeles, created the Jewish Cuba Connection in 2000; he travels alone regularly to the island with supplies and some cash to support the community there.

“They reuse the needles because they are just hard to get, so I’ll bring down a thousand needles, and I’ll bring them to a doctor,” Falkenstein said, adding that Jewish groups that come in the winter bring so much of the same supplies that Havana’s Jews “probably have enough Tylenol to kill every headache in Central and South America” and “enough siddurim to probably take care of everybody in Israel.”

Falkenstein said one reason he travels in person is because he assumes the Cuban government monitors its citizens’ telephone and email communications.

“All their communications are read and listened into,” Falkenstein said. “That’s why I go, because I can email, and you get these answers that seem to go in circles. They are nervous, and I don’t blame them.”

He said that when he raised the case of Alan Gross to Dworin, she just looked at him and remained silent. “When they look at you,” Falkenstein said, “It means they don’t want to answer.”

For Cuba’s Jewish community, Gross is not and cannot become a political issue — the small Jewish population has a peaceful relationship with its own government, and agitating on behalf of Gross could endanger that. Asked about the American contractor, Dworin said that Cuba’s Jews had never asked for the work he was providing.

“I don’t know why he came to Cuba,” Dworin said, speaking in a heavy Cuban accent. “The Jewish community doesn’t need his sophisticated equipment, because we are a small community, and we can communicate with the rest of the communities in the island, and we also can call to other countries. We can travel [and] have been in Israel.” Havana’s main synagogue, the Patronato, has Internet that community members can use, but, Dworin said, using the Internet at home in Cuba is difficult and very expensive; most Internet users rely on cybercafes.

In the U.S., how Jewish mission trips should approach Gross’ ordeal is a matter of debate. Jay Sanderson, president and CEO of the L.A. Jewish Federation, said in an interview that the L.A. Federation’s Cuba missions “do not connect to Alan Gross in any way” and that “the only place [Jewish organizations] can make an impact is in Washington — not in Havana.”

“What would we do? Would we walk around [in Cuba] with signs saying, ‘Free Alan Gross’?” Sanderson said. “I’m not being dispassionate. I’m just being realistic, and this is something that we have clearly talked about in the Federation system.” 

The Journal also asked spokespeople at the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and B’nai Brith International — both of which have major aid programs for the Jews of Cuba — as well as at UJA-Federation of New York, the Jewish Community Center of Chicago and the Washington, D.C., JCC — all of which confirmed that Gross’ plight is not a planned topic of discussion on any of their Cuban mission trips.

Not unexpectedly, though, some of Gross’ advocates, most obviously his wife, feel that leaders of Jewish missions going to Cuba have an obligation to educate their members about Gross’ imprisonment. Judy Gross believes every group of American Jews traveling to Cuba “needs to know” about her husband and that trip leaders should ensure that their groups “discuss it every time” among themselves — not in order to agitate Cuban officials, but just to raise awareness among American Jews.

“Absolutely, absolutely,” she said. “When I hear about a group going, I make it my business to tell them about it.”

Rabbi Luxemburg of the Gross family’s former synagogue said efforts to free Gross should be understood in the context of the Hebrew phrase “matir asurim,” which Jews cite three times daily in prayer services, and refers to God as the redeemer of captives. “We call God ‘matir asurim’; God is the one who frees the imprisoned,” Luxemburg said. “I think this is a godly thing for us to be doing — to engage in any and all efforts to bring Alan home.”

The JCRC’s Halber, one of Gross’ most vocal and unrelenting supporters, believes the task of the American Jewish community is to pressure the Obama administration, publicly and privately, to make a deal regardless of the political fallout, and to understand that the president “is the only one, in the end, who can bring Alan Gross home.”

Recalling a recent telephone call with Gross that helped clarify how those fighting for his freedom and life can continue fighting, despite coming up empty for nearly five years, Halber said that when he told Gross how sad he felt about his situation, the American prisoner in Havana responded:

“Don’t get sad — get mad.”

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FOR THE RECORD

Changes were made to an earlier version of this article to reflect that needles delivered by humanitarian groups to Cuba are for diabetics. In addition, the Jewish Cuba Connection was created in 2000, not 2010.

Letters to the editor: Shangri-La, Theodore Bikel, Hillary Clinton and more


Judging Justice

Rob Eshman’s arguments for overturning the verdict appear to be sound; but are they based upon the evidence presented at the trial? (“The Shangri-La Charade,” Sept. 12.) If so, then of course the verdict should be overturned by the justices of the appellate court. If not, then the verdict should stand. What has not been reported is what efforts were made to resolve this matter before the commencement of the trial, or even during the trial. My experience as an attorney who has tried many cases before a jury is that jurors take their responsibilities seriously and that their verdicts are based upon the evidence. Newspaper, radio, TV accounts of a case many times overlook the evidence that was actually presented at trial, and instead bring up matters not put before the jury (usually [having been] ruled inadmissible on legal grounds) to support the notion that the verdict was wrong. It looks like Eshman did a better job of cross-examining Mr. Codrey than Shangri-La’s lawyers did at trial. In the end, I, like he, hope that the appellate court justices render the right result, one that is supported by the evidence that was presented at trial and by the law.

Steve Barkin via jewishjournal.com


Huff About Henry and Hillary

There can be no excuse for Hillary Clinton sucking up to a warmonger and war criminal, but that’s politics for you (“Brands Make Lousy Lovers,” Sept. 12). Her vote for the Iraq War is going to be a serious problem once again, and maybe she can spin a better fantasy than last time around. She still has my support, but much more of this Henry Kissinger crap and I’m jumping ship.

John Thomas via jewishjournal.com


Come Home Soon

Thank you, Steve Gutow, for this call to action on behalf of my friend and colleague, Alan Gross. May God give Alan and his family the strength to continue to hope and achieve the redemption from unjust captivity they seek and deserve.

Howard Feinberg via jewishjournal.com


Save the Sacred or Fight the Hatred?

I have been an admirer of Theodore Bikel for many years. Being a liberal Democrat, we have been on the same side of most issues. He is a pioneer having started the Newport Folk Festival and he has too many accomplishments to list here. 

I read his article in this week’s Jewish Journal and was upset with his lack of insight to the facts on this issue (“Grieving the Children of Palestine and the Dream of Zionism,” Sept. 12). Not one of my Jewish friends was happy to see Palestine’s children’s bodies shown on CNN 24 hours a day. It broke my heart as well. The Jewish community that I know mourns every innocent death. But nowhere in Mr. Bikel’s article does he even mention Hamas. Is Israel to do nothing when 3 Jewish children are kidnapped and murdered? Is Israel responsible for the rockets of Hamas being hidden in schools and private homes? Is Israel responsible for the 3,000 rockets that were fired on Israeli civilians? As for Bikel’s assertion that Jews have been silent on this issue, I guess that he wasn’t watching CNN and all of the Jewish spokespersons that were criticizing Israel, because they were on all the time. My 16-year-old daughter was in Israel with the Ramah Seminar during the entire war and I was comforted by the fact that Israel was keeping her safe by destroying the tunnels and missile-launchers. As much as I love Theodore Bikel, he got this all wrong.

Jeff Goldsmith, West Hills

If there is no two-state solution, then equal rights must be extended to every adult person living in Israel, including those in the West Bank and Gaza. One person, one vote. What would Israel look like then? Theodore Bikel speaks for me. He speaks for many American Jews and progressive Jews in Israel. Many of us were brought up with the same dream that he had.

Phillip Cohen via jewishjournal.com


Holey Rolls!

If these people were really serious, they’d bring along some small round rolls, tack them to a target and make their own bagels the way The Swedish Chef makes doughnuts (“From Slingshots to Rifles: A Jewish Club Fires Away,” Sept. 12).

Esther Kustanowitz via jewishjournal.com


correction

The Sept. 12 article “A Pageant Where Age Is Beautiful,” erroneously stated that Sandra Erkus has three children and five grandchildren, and worked in youth counseling before retirement. She has two children, no grandchildren and worked as a health care counselor.

Wife of Alan Gross invokes Taliban-POW trade following prison visit


The wife of Alan Gross visited her husband in a Cuban prison, then likened his plight to an American prisoner of war traded for five Taliban members.

“If we can trade five members of the Taliban to bring home one American soldier, surely we can figure out a path forward to bring home one American citizen from a Cuban prison,” Judy Gross said Wednesday in Havana, where she visited her husband in their first meeting since Alan Gross’ mother died last week.

She was referring to the late May swap for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl that has generated controversy.

The Gross family has suggested that the Obama administration could trade Gross for the three of the remaining “Cuban Five” spies who are in prison, a deal that the Cuban government has hinted it would accept. Obama administration officials have said such a trade is unlikely. Two of the five Cubans were released before their sentences were completed and allowed to return to Cuba.

Gross, 65, of Maryland, who has been imprisoned since December 2009, is serving a 15-year sentence in Cuba for “crimes against the state.” Working as a subcontractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development, Gross was on a mission to connect Cuba’s small Jewish community to the Internet when he was arrested.

A statement released by the family spokeswoman, Lisa Black, noted that the Cuban government would not allow Gross humanitarian leave to attend his mother’s funeral on Friday.

U.S. authorities had allowed one of the Cuban Five to attend a family funeral in Cuba while he was on parole in Florida.

American jailed in Cuba plans suicide, lawyer says


A U.S. foreign aid contractor jailed in Cuba is planning suicide as his health declines and he grows increasingly depressed, his lawyer said on Wednesday.

Alan Gross, 65, has served 4-1/2 years of his 15-year sentence for illegally attempting to establish an online network for Jews in Havana as a subcontractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development.

“He has said to me that he's going to do something drastic if he doesn't get home very soon, and I believe him. He's very depressed,” his wife, Judy Gross, told Reuters in Havana.

“He said, 'I was here working for the U.S. government. My government has abandoned me.'”

Gross, making her sixth visit to see her imprisoned husband, and their lawyer, Scott Gilbert, renewed their call for President Barack Obama to become more involved in securing his release.

“Both governments need to know that Alan plans to end his life in an effort to end this agony,” Gilbert said in a statement.

Gross previously vowed not to spend another year in jail.

Judy Gross said her husband appeared worse than ever during a three-hour visit on Tuesday, and when asked if he was planning suicide she said, “I don't think I want to know” but that she would “try to talk him out of it.”

She plans to see him again on Thursday.

Gross has lost more than 100 pounds, has failing vision in one eye and problems with both hips, Gilbert said. He went on an eight-day hunger strike in April and began eating again at the urging of his dying mother.

Evelyn Gross, 92, died last week, adding to her husband's depression, Judy Gross said.

“He was just devastated he couldn't say goodbye,” she said.

Her husband spends 23 hours a day inside a 12-foot-by-12-foot cell that he shares with two other inmates, Judy Gross said.

Cuba says he is kept in humane conditions.

Judy Gross said she found hope in the recent trade of five Taliban suspects for U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, who had been a captive for five years in Afghanistan, even though Bergdahl's case provoked an angry backlash from members of Congress.

Some of Bergdahl's former comrades have charged he was captured after deserting his post, adding to the outrage in Washington.

“If the U.S. can do that, I'm sure they can find a way to get Alan,” Judy Gross said. “I don't think that the U.S. should leave any American behind.”

Cuba has sought to link Gross' incarceration to the cases of the so-called Cuban Five, unregistered agents who were convicted in the United States for spying on Cuban exile groups in Florida. Two of the five have been released.

The U.S. government has rejected any trade of the Cuban agents for Gross.

Editing by David Adams, Doina Chiacu and Jonathan Oatis

Mother of Alan Gross dies


The mother of Alan Gross, the Jewish-American contractor imprisoned in Cuba, has died.

Evelyn Gross died Wednesday in Plano, Texas, according to a statement by Emily Black, a spokeswoman for the Gross family. She had long been suffering from cancer. She was 92.

“This is a devastating blow for Alan and our family,” Alan Gross’ wife, Judy, was quoted as saying in Black’s statement. “I am extremely worried that now Alan will give up all hope of ever coming home and do something drastic. Surely, there must be something President Obama can do to secure Alan’s immediate release.”

Gross, 65, of Maryland, was close to his mother, who talked him into ending a hunger strike in April.

Gross, who has been imprisoned since December 2009, cited concerns for his mother’s health in his pleas for release or to be allowed a visit with her. He is serving a 15-year sentence in Cuba for “crimes against the state” following his 2011 conviction.

Working as a subcontractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development, Gross was on a mission to connect Cuba’s small Jewish community to the Internet.

Cuban officials have suggested that Gross might be exchanged for the “Cuban Five,” a group of spies imprisoned in the United States. Of those, two have been released and returned to Cuba before their full terms.

One of the Cuban spies who has since been released was allowed a brief return to Cuba for a family emergency while he was still on parole, and Gross’ family cited this in arguing that Gross should be allowed a furlough to see his mother.

In response, the Cubans offered to allow Gross’ mother to see him in Cuba, which the Gross family said was unrealistic given her age and condition.

 

 

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