The Jewish and interfaith communities of Greater Washington on Monday will commemorate the 63d birthday of Alan Gross, an American jailed on charges connected to bringing computer equipment into Cuba for the Jewish community there. They will mark the occasion at noon on April 30 at their weekly vigil in front of the Cuban Interest Section at the Swiss Embassy on 16th Street in Washington.
Gross has been imprisoned since December 2009 on charges of bringing in electronic equipment without required Cuban government permits. He is ailing and being held in a prison ward at a hospital.
He was working under a US Agency for International Development subcontract to promote democracy in Cuba by bringing computer and communications equipment for the Jewish community there. He made five trips there in 2009, often accompanying Jewish federation missions from the United States.
He was sentenced to 15 years in prison, unusually harsh considering that the Cuban government a year earlier had lifted its ban on the ownership of computers and mobile phones.
He is in poor health and his mother suffers from inoperable lung cancer, but Cuban authorities have refused even to let him visit her briefly — something the United States did do for a Cuban espionage agent who went home briefly this month to visit his terminally ill brother and has since returned to Florida.
I recently returned from a trip Cuba on a people-to-people exchange tour to meet with members of Jewish communities in several cities and to learn about the country.
It seems clear to me that Gross is not being held for what may actually be a minor infraction but is a hostage held by the Castro government. It was made clear to me on my visit that that the Cuban government would like to swap Gross for the Cuban Five, a group of agents sent by their government to spy on the Cuban-American community and the American government and convicted on espionage and conspiracy charges. One has been paroled but cannot leave the United Sates; the other four are still in prison.
The biggest obstacles to a prisoner swap and a major reason Alan Gross is unlikely to come home any time soon can be found in the strident opposition from hardline anti-Castro Cuban-Americans, most notably their congressional leadership in the Florida Republican delegation: Sen. Marco Rubio, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart and Cuban-born Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, chair of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.
Read my report here.