Jailed American contract worker Alan Gross got a little fresh reading material from a recent visitor to his Cuban prison cell — and dished out some Jewish wisdom in return.
Peter Kornbluh, a Cuba specialist at the National Security Archives, brought Gross a recent copy of the Sunday New York Times and John Grisham’s new novel, “The Racketeer,” during a November 28 visit.
Asked what message he would like to send back to the outside world, Gross replied to Kornbluh, “I want the U.S. and Cuba to sit down and talk tachlis.”
Puzzled, Kornbluh asked Gross to explain the meaning of the Yiddish term. “It means ‘truthfully,’ sitting down and talking truthfully,” Gross explained.
In a major switch, Gross’s new demand for serious negotiations is directed primarily at the White House. As Gross enters his fourth year in prison, family and supporters are shifting their focus to the Obama administration, demanding that it show willingness to cut a deal with the Castro regime in order to bring about Gross’s release.
“President Obama, I urge you to do whatever it takes to resolve this case,” said his wife, an emotional Judy Gross, in a November 30 press conference at The National Press Club. “He feels like a soldier left in the field to die. Alan is a pawn of failed policy between the two countries.”
The press conference opened a series of high-profile events marking the third anniversary of the arrest of Gross, a subcontractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development. USAID claims Gross made several trips to Cuba in order to help the local Jewish community gain Internet access.
On December 2, the Gross family and supporters led a candlelight vigil, attended by several hundred supporters, outside the Cuban Interests Section. Supporters joined Judy Gross in singing “We shall overcome” in English and in Hebrew, and raised signs calling on Cuba to release the resident of Potomac, Md., who has been suffering from health problems in prison and has lost more than 100 pounds since his arrest.
While the protest was directed at the Cuban government, the spirit of the event reflected the new message of the campaign, one that views Washington as the prime address for calls to take action.
“I think the U.S. government needs to continue pressing the Cuban government,” said Morty Greenwald of Germantown, Md., who came to the vigil with his wife and two children. Ron Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, the group leading Jewish efforts on behalf of Gross, added that the Obama administration should make the case “a top priority” and reach a deal with Havana for the release of Gross. “We have an American languishing there,” he said.
Advocates of Gross’s release have outlined a roadmap that they believe could secure it. The key to it IS for the United States to negotiate, and compromise, with the Cuban government.
“It’s time the tactics changed,” said Jared Genser, an attorney for the Gross family.
The new tactics, according to Genser, should include sending a special envoy to Cuba, one who would be close enough to President Obama to convey a message of seriousness to the Cuban government, and senior enough to be authorized to seal a deal. Several names have been mentioned as a possible envoy: former President Bill Clinton, who enjoys global credibility but is also disliked by Cubans because as president, he allowed regime-change activity against Castro; Jimmy Carter, another former president, although Carter already tried once to bring about Gross’s release, to no avail, and former Clinton chief of staff Thomas “Mack” McLarty.
The work of the special envoy and of the American government would be to reach an agreement with Havana on a “series of sequential humanitarian gestures,” said Genser, who would not elaborate on what those gestures should include. Observers believe that the package could involve Gross’s release, a discussion on easing the trade boycott on Cuba and a possible move to commute the sentence of five Cuban agents known as the Cuban Five, who were arrested in Florida while trying to infiltrate anti-Castro American groups. The campaign to release Gross has been careful not to voice any opinion regarding the Cuban Five, and Genser made clear that the two cases are not connected. Still, he said the American government should sit down with its Cuban counterparts and “discuss a wide range of issues” that are of concern to both sides.
“We can’t tell the U.S. how to negotiate,” Genser said. “But the message to the U.S. government is, ‘You sent him there, you need to do everything to get him back.’”
Stressing that Gross worked on behalf of America’s government, and hinting about his job exceeding the limits of pure international development work, is part of the new drive to put the onus on the White House to get him out. In the past, Gross’s advocates have emphasized that he was an innocent party who did nothing wrong and was wrongly convicted of spying.
“There’s a shift in tactics; there is an effort to redefine Alan Gross and what he was doing in Cuba,” said Kornbluh, the latest American to visit Gross. He noted that the recent lawsuits filed by Gross against his former employers, in which he claims they did not disclose the risks involved in the project in which he participated, could be seen as a tacit acknowledgment that Gross’s mission to Cuba had a “surreptitious dimension.”
Gross’ advocates have endured a fair amount of disappointment these past weeks from both sides. Their hope that a second-term Obama administration, free of political concerns, would move ahead and show more openness to Cuba has yet to be fulfilled. On the other hand, expectation for a Cuban gesture, fueled by the promise of a “special announcement” by Havana regarding Gross, turned out to be no more than a medical update in which authorities argued that Gross is in good health.
Official statements on behalf of the two governments demonstrate that calls for a broad dialogue between Washington and Havana have not resonated with decision makers. In a December 3 statement, Mark Toner, the State Department’s deputy spokesman, avoided any mention of possible negotiations on the release, stressing that in the eyes of the United States, “this is a humanitarian issue.”
José Ramón Cabañas, chief of the Cuban Interests Section, made clear in a letter to lawmakers of the United States on November 28, on the other hand, that his country will not discuss the Gross case without addressing other issues it has with the United States.
“To demand from, and hope for, the Cuban government to take the unilateral decision of releasing Mr. Gross without giving any consideration whatsoever to the legitimate concerns of our country is not a realistic approach,” he wrote.
Contact Nathan Guttman at firstname.lastname@example.org
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.