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Upon hearing of Gonzalez’s success, she released a statement saying that she was pleased. “I now hope that President Castro will grant Alan’s request to visit his ailing mother, Evelyn, who is suffering from inoperable lung cancer” Gross said. “Evelyn’s final wish is to see her son one last time.”
In a March 17 interview with the Forward, Judy Gross denied that she had linked the two cases. “All I am saying is I feel badly for him [Gonzalez],” Gross said, “and I do empathize with his position.”
She said that her husband, who suffers from arthritis, is in a “great deal of pain.” He has lost about 100 pounds since his arrest and in recent weeks has become increasingly depressed, she said.
Gross denied that she was incorporating a political element into her strategy. “I’m not a political person,” she told the Forward. Choosing her words carefully, she added that she would concentrate on humanitarian appeals and the forthcoming papal visit to Cuba to secure her husband’s release.
But in recent weeks, her statements have taken on a political edge. In a March 13 interview with Politico, Gross called her husband a “pawn” in a “failed policy” between the Cuban and American governments and said she was “disappointed” that Obama had not responded to requests to discuss her husband’s case with her.
The apparent shift in approach coincides with the intervention of a top Washington public relations company, Burson-Marsteller, in her husband’s campaign.
Burson-Marsteller contacted the Forward at the end of February, requesting that this newspaper highlight Alan Gross’s case. An employee claimed in an email that the State Department had asked the firm to support Gross’s case “on an urgent pro bono” basis.
Don Baer, a Burson-Marsteller executive, denied that the firm was working for the State Department. Baer said the firm’s client was Judy Gross and that the State Department had only “recommended” that the two sides contact each other.
Alan Gross was arrested in Havana while working under a $500,000 contract from Development Alternatives, Inc., a subcontractor of USAID. The State Department agency spends tens of millions of dollars each year on what it describes as “democracy-building” programs in Cuba. The Cuban government sees such activities as a threat to the regime.
By Cuba’s low standards, the island’s tiny Jewish community, which numbers about 1,500 people, lives a relatively free communal life. Jews are allowed to travel to Israel and practice Judaism. For about 20 years, American Jewish groups have sent humanitarian missions to Cuba, stocking them with kosher goods, medical supplies and technological equipment.
Alan Gross traveled to Cuba on the same flights as some of these groups while undertaking his USAID work. He told Cuban officials that he was on a Jewish humanitarian mission. He also asked some American Jews to carry equipment into the country for him.
Gross’s supporters say he was just trying to provide Internet access for the Cuban-Jewish community. But Cuban Jews have had intranet and Internet access for several years.
Most of the equipment Gross took into the country, such as smartphones and laptops, is commonly available. But when he was arrested in 2009 he was carrying rare high-tech satellite equipment that is most often used by the CIA and the Defense Department.
The technology would have allowed users to access the Internet without being monitored by the Cuban government.
Gross was convicted last year of attempting to subvert or overthrow the government of Cuba. But the U.S. government and Gross’s supporters maintain his innocence.
William Ostick, a State Department spokesman, told the Forward that Gross was “unjustly imprisoned.”
“I won’t argue the complexities of the Cuban legal system, but he was convicted for activity that in any other country would be perfectly legitimate,” Ostick said. “He was helping connect citizens of Cuba with the outside world.”
Ostick condemned the Cuban laws under which Gross was convicted as “antithetical to international standards of human rights.”
Observers are baffled as to why the United States would want to equip Cuba’s Jewish community with material under a USAID program that usually targets dissidents. They say the Jewish community has good relations with the Cuban government and is too small and lacking in influence to be worth the investment.
Julia Sweig, a Latin America specialist for the Council on Foreign Relations, said USAID’s Cuban budget, which totaled $20 million last year, was like a “big trough.” Sweig said it was possible that Gross’s mission was useful only in as much as it satisfied Congressional demand to take action in Cuba.
With a November election looming, Sweig and other analysts say it is unlikely that the Obama administration will be able to make any overtures toward the Cuban regime.