Jon Alpert (center) during shooting of “Cuba and the Cameraman.” Photo courtesy of Netflix

Four Decades of Footage Capture a Changing Cuba


Cuba has always intrigued curious tourists — a heady mix of cigar smoke, percussive jazz, Spanish colonial architecture and artfully preserved vintage automobiles — but the native people’s attitudes have changed dramatically over the decades.

When filmmaker Jon Alpert first visited the island nation in 1972, he found a socialist country enthusiastic about the future and proud of its leader, Fidel Castro. On subsequent trips, he spoke to more Cubans who had lost faith in the revolution and were desperate for political freedom and economic opportunities.

“Cuba and the Cameraman” is Alpert’s homage to a country that he fell in love with and kept visiting to track its progress. The film will be launching on Netflix and opening at the Laemmle Monica Film Center on Nov. 24.

Alpert (“Baghdad ER,” “China’s Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Sichuan Province”) is a multiple Emmy Award-winning and Academy Award-nominated documentarian and a lifelong New Yorker. Along with his wife, Keiko Tsuno, he co-founded New York’s Downtown Community Television center (DCTV), now the country’s largest nonprofit media center.

Alpert’s guerrilla filmmaking style on display in “Cuba and the Cameraman” generally involves buttonholing strangers on the streets of Cuba to talk to him and show him around their neighborhoods while he walks with a single shoulder-mounted camera.

As the film progresses you see his style evolve. He first brought his daughter, Tami, to Cuba when she was 2. By the time she’s a teenager, she’s the cinematographer. In one surreal and hilarious scene, she asks for — and receives — a note from Castro to bring to her teacher explaining her absence from school.

“We probably hatched the idea together that the only way to keep her out of trouble would be to get Fidel to write a note, and it worked,” Alpert said with a laugh.

Alpert has made an unlikely career out of showing up in places most film crews would deem too dangerous. Name a country that’s seen mass violence in recent decades and Alpert has probably been there: Iraq, Afghanistan, Nicaragua, Vietnam, Cambodia, China, the Philippines and many others. He sold his footage to networks, which gave him the stability to keep traveling and documenting war zones.

His second visit to Cuba in 1974 lasted two months, and resulted in “Cuba: The People,” a well-received, one-hour documentary shown on PBS. By the late 1970s, Alpert was established as a reliable — and sometimes the only — Western reporter in the country.

“I was sort of the filmmaker-reporter of record. I could get my cameras into Cuba when other people couldn’t,” he said. “But this changed after the Mariel Bay boatlift.”

The Mariel Bay boatlift was a mass migration of refugees from the island in 1980, with the approval of the Cuban government. As many as 125,000 Cubans arrived in Florida in crowded boats, including a number of prisoners and mental asylum inmates. “Fidel was making sure that he emptied out these institutions and sent these folks to the United States,” Alpert said.

Alpert interviewed the inmates as they were preparing to leave the country, and that footage, he says, is what ended the boatlift. “It was the lead story on NBC Nightly News. Fifteen minutes after the story was broadcast, [then-President] Jimmy Carter goes on the air and stops the boatlift, and his speech is almost word for word from the content of my report,” he said.

The sudden end to the boatlift presented a problem for the roughly 300,000 asylum-seeking Cubans who had not yet left. They already had abandoned their jobs and homes, and renounced socialism and Castro, and now they had to be reabsorbed into society.

“The needed a scapegoat and evidently I became the scapegoat. On a subsequent trip to Cuba, I couldn’t film anything and was more or less kept in my hotel room with permission being denied to go to the places that I would normally be able to go film,” Alpert said.

The limitations placed on the fillmmaker actually provided a structure for “Cuba and the Cameraman.” Because he couldn’t go to schools, hospitals and community centers, he decided to focus on the lives of three families that he had befriended.

Alpert, who was able to enter the country as a journalist, regularly returns to visit three brothers — Cristobal, Angel and Gregorio — who own a farm and struggle to till the soil after thieves steal their oxen. He meets a young girl named Caridad and then comes back to find that she’s a mother with two grown children. And he meets a former wrestling champion named Luis who shows Alpert around his tough, working-class neighborhood of Havana.

“I was sort of the filmmaker-reporter of record. I could get my cameras into Cuba when other people couldn’t.” — Jon Alpert

Alpert’s fascination with Cuba stems from Castro’s charismatic personality and his unlikely victory over U.S.-backed leader Fulgencio Batista in a 1959 military coup.

“The story of that revolution is very romantic. It’s like the Maccabees. There’s a little bunch of guys that hold off a force that should have steamrolled them,” he said. “They succeed and they took the country over. And the things he was trying to implement, if you look at the things my family left Europe for — freedom to go to school, have a nice place to live, health care … at least on paper they were trying to implement these things in Cuba. It made me extraordinarily curious and made me want to meet the person in charge of that.”

In 1976, Castro was intrigued by Alpert and the reel-to-reel Portapak camera he lugged around in a baby carriage, and granted him exclusive interviews that were remarkably intimate. They chat like old friends, and one forgets Castro was an equally reviled and beloved dictator. On subsequent visits, Castro would joyfully greet “The Journalist.” Alpert was the last Western journalist to interview Castro before he died in 2016 at age 90.

“His staff seemed to be horrified,” he said. “They’d never seen anyone ask Fidel these types of questions. I want to see what’s inside the refrigerator. It’s sort of an equal-opportunity invasion for everybody. And I think Fidel liked it and enjoyed being part of that examination.”

Alpert’s family encompasses the range of Jewish experiences (“I’ve got a rabbi on one side and communists on the other”) and he credits his Jewish upbringing for how he treats his interview subjects.

“That’s what our tradition teaches us,” he said. “We’re all equal under the eyes of whomever you think is looking down on us. That’s how I was taught to go through the world and that’s how I interact with everybody. I want to make sure that when I report back to my audience that I really certified that this is the case.”

“Cuba and the Cameraman” launches on Netflix and opens at the Laemmle Monica Film Center,1332 Second St., Santa Monica, on Nov. 24.

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


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.”

Thank you, Obama


Thank you, President Barack Obama, for serving the country for the past eight years.

Thank you, Obama, for not moving the American embassy in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. You were wise enough to follow the lead of your Democratic and Republican predecessors and realize the chaos such a move could cause would not be worth the cost. There is no doubt the embassy should be in Jerusalem. There is no question that Jerusalem is the eternal and contemporary capital of Israel. But thank you for knowing that not every right must be claimed at any cost.

Thank you for protecting Israel when and where it mattered most: with off-budget millions for Iron Dome, for standing up for Israel’s right to defend itself in the Gaza war, for a record-setting $38 billion in aid. 

Thank you for declaring as eloquently as any president ever has, and in as many international forums as possible, the value and justice of a Jewish state. Thank you for trying to protect that state from pursuing policies that will endanger its own existence.

Thank you for the Iran deal. Before the deal, Iran was weeks from attaining nuclear bomb capability. Now the world has a decade before the mullahs have the capability of developing a bomb. You tackled a problem that only had gotten worse under previous American and Israeli leaders. Despite fierce opposition, you found a solution that even those Israelis who hated it have grown to see as beneficial. 

Thank you for killing Osama bin Laden. And for taking out al-Qaida’s senior leadership. And for stopping and reversing gains by ISIS. You know who’s really happy to see you go? Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. 

Thank you for standing up to Vladimir Putin. You saw the expansionist, anti-democratic nature of Putin’s actions in Ukraine and quickly confronted him. Perhaps that opposition slowed what may have been an inevitable march through the Baltics. There is nothing wrong with having positive relations with Russia, but “positive” cannot mean giving the Putin regime a pass. 

Thank you for recognizing our Cuba embargo was a failed policy and that the time for change had come. 

Thank you for steering the country through the recession. Thank you for cutting unemployment in half. And for doing so in the face of Republican obstructionism on the kind of infrastructure bill that your successor now likely will get through. 

Thank you for doubling clean energy production. For recognizing that our dependence on fossil fuels can’t help but degrade our environment and hold us back from being competitive in the green energy future, and embolden corrupt and backward regimes from Venezuela to the Middle East to Russia. 

Thank you for saving the American auto industry. You revived General Motors with $50 billion in loans, saving 1.2 million jobs and creating $35 billion in tax revenue so far. Have you checked out GM’s Chevy Bolt? All electric, 240 miles per charge, drives like a rocket and made in Detroit. They should call it the “Obamacar.”

Thank you for the Paris Agreement to address climate change. Thank you for throwing America’s lot in with the rest of the planet.

Thank you for the Affordable Care Act. It has brought the security of health care to millions. It has saved lives. It has kept the rate of cost increases in premiums lower in the past eight years than they were in the previous eight years. It needs to be fixed — what doesn’t? — but only with better ideas, not worse ones.

Thank you for Merrick Garland. It was a great idea while it lasted.

Thank you for trying to get immigration reform through Congress, and for pursuing the policy known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which let 5 million people already living and working here come out of the shadows. 

Thanks for Michelle. Not just her brains and biceps, but her choice of causes. Your wife saw all the good the food movement had accomplished from the grass roots up and planted it squarely in the front yard of the White House, where it would grow even more from the top down.

Thank you for trying. You grappled with one great chaos after another, and sometimes you fell short. In Syria, you needed a smarter course of action. In Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, you underestimated the need, early on, to deal with Israeli fears and Palestinian obstructionism. As for ending the Sudan embargo, the jury is out. Stateside, your administration should have put some of the bad guys of the recession behind bars and found fixes that better addressed the wealth gap. 

Time will reveal more blemishes — and heal some of the scars. But in the meantime:

Thank you. Thank you for not embarrassing us, your family or yourself. Though your opponents and their friends at “Fox and Friends” tried to pin scandals to you, none could stick. In my lifetime, there has never been an administration so free from personal and professional moral stain. 

Thank you for the seriousness, dignity, grace, humor and cool you brought to the Oval Office. Thank you for being my president.


ROB ESHMAN is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. Email him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter @foodaism and @RobEshman.

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.

Cuba’s Fidel Castro knocks sweet-talking Obama after ‘honey-coated’ visit


Retired leader Fidel Castro accused U.S. President Barack Obama of sweet-talking the Cuban people during his visit to the island last week and ignoring the accomplishments of Communist rule, in an opinion piece carried by all state-run media on Monday.

Obama's visit was aimed at consolidating a detente between the once intractable Cold War enemies and the U.S. president said in a speech to the Cuban people that it was time for both nations to put the past behind them and face the future “as friends and as neighbors and as family, together.”

“One assumes that every one of us ran the risk of a heart attack listening to these words,” Castro said in his column, dismissing Obama's comments as “honey-coated” and reminding Cubans of the many U.S. efforts to overthrow and weaken the Communist government.

Castro, 89, laced his opinion piece with nationalist sentiment and, bristling at Obama's offer to help Cuba, said the country was able to produce the food and material riches it needs with the efforts of its people. 

“We don't need the empire to give us anything,” he wrote. 

Asked about Fidel Castro's criticisms on Monday, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the Obama administration was pleased with the reception the president received from the Cuban people and the conversations he had with Cuban officials.

“The fact that the former president felt compelled to respond so forcefully to the president's visit, I think is an indication of the significant impact of President Obama's visit to Cuba,” Earnest said.

After the visit, major obstacles remain to full normalization of ties between Cuba and the United States, with no major concessions offered by Cuba on rights and economic freedom.

“The president made clear time and time again both in private meetings with President Castro, but also in public when he delivered a speech to the Cuban people, that the U.S. commitment to human rights is rock solid and that's not going to change,” Earnest said. 

Fidel Castro took power in a 1959 revolution and led the country until 2006, when he fell ill and passed power to his brother Raul Castro. He now lives in relative seclusion but is occasionally heard from in opinion pieces or seen on television and in photos meeting with visiting dignitaries.

The iconic figure's influence has waned in his retirement and the introduction of market-style reforms carried out by Raul Castro, but Fidel Castro still has a moral authority among many residents, especially older generations.

Obama did not meet with Fidel Castro during his three-day visit, nor mention him in any of his public appearances. It was the first visit of a sitting U.S. president for 88 years. 

Fidel Castro blasted Obama for not referring in his speech to the extermination of native peoples in both the United States and Cuba, not recognizing Cuba's gains in health and education, and not coming clean on what he might know about how South Africa obtained nuclear weapons before apartheid ended, presumably with the aid of the U.S. government.

“My modest suggestion is that he reflects (on the U.S. role in South Africa and Cuba's in Angola) and not now try to elaborate theories about Cuban politics,” Castro said.

Castro also took aim at the tourism industry in Cuba, which has grown further since Obama's rapprochement with Raul Castro in December 2014. He said it was dominated by large foreign corporations which took for granted billion-dollar profits.

Obama to visit Cuba during AIPAC’s Policy Conference


President Barack Obama may not be attending AIPAC’s Policy Conference in Washington D.C. in the last year of his presidency.

The White House announced on Thursday that the President will travel to Cuba to meet with Cuban President Raul Castro, entrepreneurs, and “Cubans from different walks of life” on March 21 and 22.

The 2016 AIPAC Policy Conference is also scheduled for March 20-22. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is expected to visit DC to address the annual gathering. 

As of now, no meeting has been scheduled between Netanyahu and Obama, Israel Hayom reported. Following the announcement of the President’s Cuba trip, it is now unclear whether the two leaders will even meet while the Israeli Prime Minister is in town. 

This will mark the second consecutive year that Netanyahu is in town for AIPAC’s conference and is not being invited to the White House. Last year, Netanyahu came to address a joint session of Congress against the President’s will. But after the implementation of the Iran nuclear deal and the ongoing negotiations over an increased security package, it was expected that Netanyahu and Obama would meet in March to finalize the details on a 10-year MOU between the U.S. and Israel. Though, a meeting may still take place when the President returns from Cuba on the 22nd. 

Obama and Netanyahu last met in November. 

A week and a half before Netanyahu travels to Washington, Vice President Joe Biden will visit Israel, Netanyahu announced on Sunday.

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.”

Chicago mayor cuts short vacation after latest police shooting


Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said on Monday he would cut his family vacation in Cuba short to address the fatal shooting of two more black residents by a city police department already under federal investigation over its use of deadly force.

The decision comes after activists stepped up calls for Emanuel's resignation over his handling of policing in the nation's third-largest city. A protest is planned at City Hall on Thursday. 

“While Mayor Emanuel has been in constant contact with his staff and Interim Superintendent (John) Escalante, he is cutting his family trip short so that he can continue the ongoing work of restoring accountability and trust in the Chicago Police Department,” said the mayor's spokeswoman, Kelley Quinn.

Emanuel is set to arrive back in Chicago on Tuesday afternoon, she said. The mayor's office did not say when he left for Cuba or when he had been scheduled to return. 

The latest police shootings killed Bettie Jones, 55, and college student Quintonio LeGrier, 19. Family members said police were called after LeGrier, who had mental health issues, threatened his father with a metal baseball bat.

Jones' family is expected to seek video footage of the shootings, which occurred early on Saturday, if any exists, in an attempt to get a clearer picture of what happened, according to its attorney.

The release of a Chicago police video last month of the fatal shooting of a black teenager, which had been withheld for more than a year, led to the resignation of the city's police chief and the start of a U.S. Department of Justice probe into whether the city's police use lethal force too often, especially against minorities. 

High-profile killings of black men by police officers since mid-2014 have triggered waves of protest, including in Chicago, and fueled a civil rights movement under the name Black Lives Matter. On Monday a grand jury cleared two Cleveland police officers in the November 2014 fatal shooting of black 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was brandishing a toy gun in a park.

Emanuel called Jones' family to offer his sympathy, according to Ja'Mal Green, an activist and protest organizer in Chicago. But he said Emanuel should resign and his return will not help problems in the city's social and justice systems.

“Here or not, you know, is still like him not here,” Green said.

The embattled mayor issued a statement on Sunday calling for a review of the police Crisis Intervention Team and better guidance for officers when dealing with mental health cases. 

“There are serious questions about yesterday's shootings that must be answered in full by the Independent Police Review Authority's investigation,” his statement said.

Regarding the latest shootings, police said LeGrier was being combative, but have admitted that Jones, who lived on the first-floor of the building, was shot by accident and offered condolences.

Chicago police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said on Monday he did not know if there was video of the shooting.

However, attorney Larry Rogers Jr., representing Jones' family, said at a prayer vigil on Sunday that there may be a video from a house under construction across the street, and that police footage may exist.

The previous killing of 17-year-old black teen Laquan McDonald in October 2014, which was captured on video released last month, led to multiple protests and calls for Emanuel's resignation. 

Emanuel, previously U.S. President Barack Obama's White House chief of staff, became Chicago's mayor in 2011 and was re-elected earlier this year in a run-off. He was already facing pressure over high crime and gang violence in parts of the city and had been criticized for closing 50 public schools in mostly minority areas. 

Calls for his resignation started with the release of the McDonald video last month. 

Civil rights activist Al Sharpton said Emanuel should step down in an interview on MSNBC's 'Morning Joe' program on Monday, before Emanuel said he was returning.

Mobster Meyer Lansky’s heirs seeking compensation for Havana hotel casino


The descendants of Jewish gangster Meyer Lansky are seeking compensation for a hotel casino in Cuba he built in the 1950s.

Talks between the United States and Cuba regarding claims by Americans to property nationalized after the Cuban revolution opened Tuesday, and Lansky’s heirs are considering filing a claim, Reuters reported Thursday.

Gary Rapoport, Lansky’s grandson, told Reuters that he, his mother and his uncle are beneficiaries of Lansky’s estate and thus are entitled to compensation from the Cuban government for the Havana hotel casino, which opened just a year before Fidel Castro took over and outlawed gambling.

Rapoport, 60, said he was raised by Lansky after his mother’s divorce.

“Trust me, I’m not looking to move down to Cuba and take over the business,” Rapoport said. “I believe my family is entitled to something.”

Rapoport, of Tampa, Florida, told Reuters he worked in Lansky’s Miami Beach hotel, the Singapore.

Lansky, who died in 1983, was described in his JTA obituary as an “acknowledged financial wizard and one-time reputed czar of organized crime in the U.S. and many points overseas.”

Over the course of his career, he was associated with such convicted racketeers as Charles “Lucky” Luciano and Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, both boyhood chums, as well as “Dutch” Schultz, Al Capone and Louis “Lepke” Buchalter, the “hit man” of the notorious “Murder Inc.”

But although linked to illicit gambling and other forms of vice, Lansky was never convicted of a serious crime. He went to jail only once — a two-month sentence in 1953 on a gambling conviction in Saratoga, New York.

In 1972, he sought to immigrate to Israel under its Law of Return, but his application was denied because of his criminal past.

He was the inspiration for the Hyman Roth character in the 1974 film “The Godfather: Part II,” according to Reuters. In 1998, Richard Dreyfuss portrayed him in the HBO biopic “Lansky.”

Lansky’s Havana hotel casino, now called the Hotel Riviera Habana, is still operating and its website mentions Lansky’s founding.

While noting that its “mafia and gambling vestiges were quickly scrapped,” the hotel website says the lobby “still reflects elements typical of the era.”

Rapoport told Reuters he is optimistic the Cuban government will consider his family’s claim.

The talks over compensation come in the aftermath of a historic agreement last year to thaw U.S.-Cuba ties. Jewish contractor Alan Gross, who had been in a Cuban prison for five years, was released as part of the deal.

Tales of Cuba, up close and personal


Leila Segal is a woman of many gifts and passions. Trained as a barrister, she is today an accomplished writer, poet and photographer, a community activist in London and an advocate for the disempowered around the world. Not surprisingly, she was powerfully drawn to Cuba, where she gathered the life experiences she refracted in “Breathe: Stories From Cuba” (Lubin & Kleyner/Flipped Eye Publishing), a collection of nine luminous tales set in what she calls “a secret city — desconocida — uncharted and unknown.”

Segal shows us Cuba at street level. The Cubans and expats who find each other in the story titled “Siempre Luchando,” for example, seek out places that only Cubans know. (“Angel, take us somewhere real, the French boy said, not some tourist s—.”) Although Segal is interested in politics, she always shows us the realpolitik of intimate human relationships, too. So it is that the young man called Angel courts a French woman as a way to reach France, and when she abruptly changes her mind, he is forced to find someone else to take her place.

“In Cuba we do not have hopes and we cannot make plans,” Angel says to his new French girlfriend. “I live for today, siempre luchando — always I struggle. Every day I move, and I survive. I find a way to distract myself.  I must always be outside, find a way to forget my life, I cannot sit in my house, it makes me crazy.”

So, too, does the man called Alejandro embody the hard facts of life in Cuba in the story titled “Taxi.” He is a medical student reduced to driving a “peso” cab, a half-century-old Buick that he purchased with the proceeds from the sale of his mother’s jewelry. “Throughout the Special Period in the ’90s, when people were killing cats to eat, she had kept the jewelry safe. Some things could not be sold — no matter how hard the Yankees tried to starve them into submission. But after she died, his resolve slipped away.”  After all, “a doctor’s salary doesn’t pay enough,” and so he stays behind the wheel.

Alejandro, we learn, has lost his faith in the revolution, as well as in medicine. “If you valued your job, your home, your child’s education, you went every month to the meeting of your local Committee for the Defence of the Revolution. You attended the marches in support of Fidel, waving your Cuban flag — with or without enthusiasm. If you didn’t, it was written down — your workplace kept a register — marked on your record forever.”  And yet the story turns abruptly into a morality tale when, in defiance of Cuban law, he picks up an American tourist who is supposed to use only “dollar” taxis, and she falls ill. “A-le-jan-dro — it meant protector,” Segal points out, and she shows the upwelling of courage and self-sacrifice that redeems him.

Many of the stories in “Breathe” are about love and sex, which are readily distinguishable in Segal’s rich and evocative prose. In “Luca’s Trip to Havana,” for example, we meet a philandering Italian businessman named Luca who prefers Cuban women to Europeans because “you didn’t have to play games to get them; they could take a compliment without sneering at you as if you’d offered up your soul.” Still, Luca sizes up Cuban women around his hotel according to his own harsh typology: “the prostitute, in and out in an hour; the jinetera — she’d stay for a few days, take a little money, give a little love; and the sweet heart, who would never want to leave,” because she was “probably hoping to snag a foreign husband and a better life abroad.” Yet the enchanting woman who yields to him also is willing to confront him with his own brutality and hypocrisy: “You are a coward,” she says afterward. “You have a black hole for a heart.”

We are always tempted to believe that the characters in fiction are alter egos of the author, and I suspect that Segal inhabits more than one of her own beguiling characters. Anna, the Englishwoman who narrates the story called “The Party,” for example, also is a visitor to Cuba and an observer who wants to experience Cuban life outside the tourist bubble. She is baffled by the conversations between her Cuban boyfriend, Charro, and another woman, and by the tears her host sheds merely because one of the guests at his party decides to leave: “You don’t have to understand everything, Anna,” Charro scolds. “We’re in Cuba and we feel things.” The mystery that confounds her cannot be penetrated, but Anna — like the author herself — is content to explore it in carefully chosen words, the true calling of the writer. 

“I saw the pile of writing paper by my bed and the unfinished letter to my mother, the fountain pen she had given me just before I left — because if there’s no email and no phone, you’ll have to do the old-fashioned thing and write.’”

And that, of course, is exactly what Leila Segal has done in “Breathe.”

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.

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.

Turned away in 1939: The voyage of the MS St. Louis


Hans Fisher vividly remembers his excitement on May 27, 1939, the day the MS St. Louis and its 937 refugees, most of them German Jews, reached Havana’s harbor in Cuba two weeks after leaving Hamburg, Germany.

“On that day, we got up early, all our luggage was packed. We put it in front of the cabin door, and the porters took it upstairs on deck, and then we all went on deck,” said Fisher, who was 11 at the time and traveling with his mother and younger sister.

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Obama tells Congress he plans to remove Cuba from terrorism list


President Barack Obama told Congress on Tuesday he intends to remove Cuba from a U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism, clearing the way for restoring diplomatic relations and reopening embassies shut for more than half a century.

Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro sat down at a Western Hemisphere summit in Panama on Saturday for the first meeting of its kind between U.S. and Cuban leaders in nearly 60 years.

Cuba's communist government had flatly demanded removal from the U.S. blacklist as a condition for normal relations between the two former Cold War foes. Obama ordered a review of Cuba's status after he and Castro announced a diplomatic breakthrough on Dec. 17.

Cuba was placed on the list in 1982 when it was aiding rebel movements in Africa and Latin America. But Havana long ago said it had ceased the policy of supporting foreign insurgencies. Presence on the list, however, has continued to limit its access to international banking and overseas financial markets.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement welcoming Obama's decision that “circumstances have changed since 1982,” when Cuba was listed “because of its efforts to promote armed revolution by forces in Latin America.”

In his report to Congress, Obama certified that “the government of Cuba has not provided any support for international terrorism during the preceding six-month period,” and “has provided assurances that it will not support acts of international terrorism in the future.”

Congress has 45 days to consider Obama's decision before it takes effect, but lawmakers cannot stop it unless both chambers approve a joint resolution, a move that is highly unlikely.

Many of Obama's fellow Democrats hailed his decision and some experts said it was long overdue.

But U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, a Cuban-American lawmaker from south Florida and newly announced Republican presidential candidate, denounced it as a “terrible” decision, saying Cuba was helping North Korea evade sanctions and harboring fugitives from American justice.

The fugitives include Joanne Chesimard, wanted in the slaying of a New Jersey state trooper in the early 1970s.

Republican U.S. Representative Mario Diaz-Balart, another Cuban-American lawmaker from Florida, accused Obama of “capitulating to dictators.”

There was no immediate comment from the Cuban government.

BANKS CAUTIOUS

Obama could have announced his intention to lift the terrorism designation and move forward on restoring diplomatic relations at last weekend's summit.

But U.S. officials privately said they saw the issue as leverage in broader normalization negotiations. For their part, the Cubans at first resisted formal assurances renouncing terrorism, as required by U.S. law for delisting, according to U.S. officials.

Cuba's removal from the list will ease certain economic sanctions on the island, but the broader U.S. embargo on Cuba will remain in place because only Congress can end it. Iran, Sudan and Syria remain on the list.

Some experts said U.S. banks would remain cautious for now. “Banks are certainly watching for further developments but the Cuban government has a lot more steps to take until the industry can take action,” said Rob Rowe, vice president of the American Bankers Association.

The two countries have made headway toward an agreement on embassies. A U.S. official expressed optimism but added, “We're still not quite there yet.” Among the unresolved issues is a U.S. demand for freedom of movement for its diplomats.

Cuba's human rights record still draws criticism from Washington, and Havana has shown little if any sign of political reform.

“We will continue to have differences with the Cuban government,” the White House said.

Geoff Thale of the Washington Office on Latin America, a private group that promotes democracy in the hemisphere, said: “Taking Cuba off the list of terrorist states is a sensible, and long-overdue step.”

Cuba was added to the list at the height of the Cold War when it was aiding leftist insurgencies such as the FARC rebels in Colombia. The most recent State Department report in 2013 also accused Havana of providing “safe haven” to Basque ETA separatist guerrillas but said its ties had become more distant to the group, which last year pledged to disarm.

Cuba is now promoting peace talks between the Colombian government and the FARC.

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.

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.”

For a Jewish baseball purist, Cuba beckons


To the dismay of baseball fan Kit Krieger, future travels to Cuba will no longer include get-togethers with ex-Washington Senators pitcher Connie Marrero.

Marrero, who played for Washington from 1950 to 1954, died in Havana last April at age 102, a few months after Krieger’s last visit and three years after Krieger helped arrange for Marrero a $10,000 annual pension from Major League Baseball.

Theirs was a special friendship, one of many forged by Krieger, a Vancouver resident who will return to Cuba in late February — his 30th visit there beginning with a 1997 trip related to his job with the British Columbia teachers federation. That trip spawned a love affair with the country and its baseball scene.

Krieger, 65, would go on to found Cuba Ball, a company bringing baseball-mad tourists to the island nation — a venture begun really to enable himself to visit affordably with groups.

With President Obama’s Dec. 17 announcement on renewing diplomatic relations broken off by the United States in 1961, Krieger sees a double-edged sword: Cuba will emerge from U.S.-imposed isolation, but the country’s professional baseball scene could ultimately disappear, like America’s Negro Leagues following the integration of Major League Baseball.

In the near term, he figures, Cuban baseball will remain unchanged, since the country can hardly be expected to allow foreign teams to poach its premier talent — at least not without hefty payments, as in Japan. Individual players, Krieger adds, are unlikely to risk defecting while knowing that renewed diplomacy could prompt Washington’s lifting of an economic blockade, enabling them to legally sign lucrative contracts abroad.

Following Obama’s announcement, MLB released a statement saying that it will monitor whether the policy shift affects “the manner in which [teams] conduct business on issues related to Cuba.”

Krieger says he sees Cuba as “the largest pool of untapped baseball talent in the world, and no one knows if [the news] will open this pool.” But he fears “the beginning of the end” of a Cuban baseball reality caught in a sweet time warp evoking America of the 1890s. Eventually, Krieger says, Cuban baseball “will become integrated into the international baseball community, which it isn’t now.”

His love for Cuban baseball led him more than a decade ago to join the Society for American Baseball Research, where he recruited like-minded fans for the trips. He’s similarly passionate about family history, frequently conducting research on Jewish genealogy websites. Thanks largely to meticulous records kept by his ancestors, Krieger (his given first name is Ernest) can trace several branches in Poland and Germany back to 1700.

“I can even tell you the name of my grandfather’s mohel,” he quips.

Krieger’s baseball and genealogy interests at times have coincided: His late mother, Ann Kohlberg, grew up in an apartment building at 320 Riverside Drive in Manhattan, across the hall from New York Giants star Mel Ott. Kohlberg’s cousin, Don Taussig, went on to play outfield with the franchise after its move to San Francisco.

While Krieger doesn’t usually seek out Jewish residents or sites while in Cuba, another Jewish traveler, retired professor Oscar Soule, does.

Soule, of Olympia, Wash., who will be traveling with Krieger to Cuba in February, has been to the Caribbean nation five times and makes a point of going to a Havana synagogue on each visit. The draws for him are the baseball games and meetings with government officials, as well as such diamond legends as Omar Linares and Victor Mesa that wouldn’t happen without Krieger.

Marrero, a 5-foot-5 right-hander who posted a 39-40 record in the majors and made the American League’s All-Star team in 1951 at age 40, benefited from Krieger’s attention in his final years as he lost his eyesight and hearing. Krieger solicited notes of appreciation from the aging pitcher’s American contemporaries, all of whom Marrero fondly remembered. More than 90 letters arrived, and scores more for Marrero’s 100th birthday, including from Hall of Famers Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, Tommy Lasorda, George Kell and Harmon Killebrew.

“Kit is a darned nice guy who’s helpful and doesn’t expect anything in return,” says Eddie Robinson, a former official with the MLB Players Alumni Association and a Senators teammate of Marrero who played a key role in securing the pension, to which Marrero had not been entitled previously because he wasn’t vested.

Two or three of the four pension payments were delivered by former major leaguer Stan Javier, a resident of the nearby Dominican Republic, Krieger says.

Of Krieger, ex-pitcher Steve Rogers, who works for the Major League Baseball Players Association, says he “was always available to do everything he could to help” in the Marrero case.

With Marrero gone, Krieger is seeking to raise $69,000 for new plaques honoring the members of Cuba’s Hall of Fame. Upon hearing Obama’s announcement last week, Krieger asked Cuba Ball clients to make a Marrero plaque the first priority. During the February visit, Krieger plans to begin working to identify a proper building for the Hall, which is now housed in Havana’s Estadio Latinoamerican.

There will be games to attend, too. Cuban baseball games have far more character than the typical corporate stadium American game. Scorecards and souvenirs are not sold, but makeshift bands entertain the fans.

“I went to a game in San Cristobal, in western Cuba,” Krieger recalls. “A guy hits a homer to win the game, gets on his bike to go home and gets stopped by a fan who gives him a live chicken.

“They’d played on a chain-link-fence field. The seats were concrete slabs, and everyone else watched from the beds of pickup trucks. It was not even a sandlot — it was a farm game.

“For the baseball purists,” he says, “those who love to go to Cuba, it’s a unique baseball culture.”

 

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.

 

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

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.

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.

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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)

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