Zuckman Crosses Cultures in Quest to Free Cuban Prisoner

Jill Zuckman
National Journal
Christopher Snow Hopkins
Add to Briefcase
See more stories about...
Christopher Snow Hopkins
May 4, 2014, 7 a.m.

When Jill Zuck­man ar­rived at the Car­los J. Fin­lay Mil­it­ary Hos­pit­al in Havana last Tues­day, she was taken in­to a small room with four chairs and a low table with cof­fee, wa­ter, and candy.

Sit­ting op­pos­ite her was Alan Gross, a former sub­con­tract­or for the U.S. Agency for In­ter­na­tion­al De­vel­op­ment who was ar­res­ted by the Cuban gov­ern­ment four years ago on charges that he had com­mit­ted “acts against the in­de­pend­ence or ter­rit­ori­al in­teg­rity of the state” after try­ing to bring In­ter­net ac­cess to Cuba’s Jew­ish pop­u­la­tion. The pris­on­er muttered something that Zuck­man asked him to re­peat.

“On May 2, I turn 65 years old and it will be my last birth­day here,” Gross said. “It means what it means.”

Zuck­man, a man­aging dir­ect­or at SK­DKnick­er­bock­er, is a com­mu­nic­a­tions spe­cial­ist work­ing to have Gross freed. She says the case is one of the most chal­len­ging as­sign­ments of her ca­reer, which she began as a polit­ic­al re­port­er and con­tin­ued as com­mu­nic­a­tions dir­ect­or at the Trans­port­a­tion De­part­ment.

At the time of the meet­ing, Gross was re­cov­er­ing from a nine-day hun­ger strike. He had once been a burly man but has lost 110 pounds over the course of his im­pris­on­ment. Zuck­man and her two com­pan­ions — Scott Gil­bert, Gross’s lead at­tor­ney, and Emily Grim, an as­so­ci­ate at Gil­bert’s law firm — were as­ton­ished that he was still alive.

“He turns 65 on Fri­day, and I really think that puts [pres­sure on] the two gov­ern­ments,” said Zuck­man, who is work­ing on the case pro bono. “I think [the U.S. and Cuban] gov­ern­ments have to de­cide wheth­er they’re go­ing to make some hard de­cisions and get him out of there, or wheth­er they’re go­ing to have his blood on their hands.”

The case has re­ceived in­ter­mit­tent press at­ten­tion since Gross was ar­res­ted in 2009, yet the primary tar­get of Zuck­man’s ad­vocacy cam­paign is seni­or gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials.

“It’s very dif­fi­cult be­cause we’re not ne­ces­sar­ily try­ing to com­mu­nic­ate to reg­u­lar, every­day people,” she said. “We’re really try­ing to com­mu­nic­ate to the highest levels of both gov­ern­ments.”

Here at home, Zuck­man’s PR cam­paign — and a web­site doc­u­ment­ing the de­teri­or­a­tion of Gross’s health — seems to be get­ting res­ults. In Decem­ber, the White House said that Pres­id­ent Obama was “per­son­ally en­gaged” in the cam­paign to free Gross and had urged world lead­ers to use their in­flu­ence with the Cuban gov­ern­ment to set him free.

Zuck­man, 48, was born in Wash­ing­ton. Her fath­er was a law pro­fess­or at Cath­ol­ic Uni­versity, and her moth­er was a so­cial work­er.

After gradu­at­ing from Brown Uni­versity, Zuck­man be­came a re­port­er for the Mil­wau­kee Journ­al, then re­turned to D.C. to re­port for Con­gres­sion­al Quarterly, The Bo­ston Globe, and fi­nally the Chica­go Tribune. Over the course of her ca­reer, she covered four pres­id­en­tial cam­paigns.

At the be­gin­ning of 2009, Zuck­man left the Tribune to serve as dir­ect­or of pub­lic af­fairs in the Trans­port­a­tion De­part­ment un­der then-Sec­ret­ary Ray La­Hood. In the en­su­ing years, she helped La­Hood draw at­ten­tion to the dangers of “dis­trac­ted driv­ing” and also co­ordin­ated the agency’s me­dia re­sponse dur­ing the 2013 gov­ern­ment shut­down, when the Fed­er­al Avi­ation Ad­min­is­tra­tion fur­loughed thou­sands of air-safety in­spect­ors.

Oddly enough, Zuck­man be­came in­volved in the ef­fort to free Alan Gross after meet­ing Gil­bert at a bar mitzvah. A few months later, Gil­bert called Zuck­man to ask if she would be in­ter­ested in help­ing with the case.

“It was com­pletely ran­dom,” she said.

What We're Following See More »
Clinton Foundation Staffers Steered Biz to Bill
7 hours ago

"Two chief fundraisers for the Clinton Foundation pressed corporate donors to steer business opportunities to former President Bill Clinton as well, according to a hacked memo published Wednesday by WikiLeaks. The November 2011 memo from Douglas Band, at the time a top aide to Mr. Clinton, outlines extensive fundraising efforts that Mr. Band and a partner deployed on behalf of the Clinton Foundation and how that work sometimes translated into large speaking fees and other paid work for Mr. Clinton."

House Investigators Already Sharpening Their Spears for Clinton
16 hours ago

House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz plans to spend "years, come January, probing the record of a President Hillary Clinton." Chaffetz told the Washington Post: “It’s a target-rich environment. Even before we get to Day One, we’ve got two years’ worth of material already lined up. She has four years of history at the State Department, and it ain’t good.”

Clinton Super PAC Enters the House Fray
21 hours ago

Priorities USA, the super PAC aligned with the Clinton campaign, which has already gotten involved in two Senate races, is now expanding into House races. The group released a 30 second spot which serves to hit Donald Trump and Iowa Rep. Rod Blum, who is in a tough race to win re-election in Iowa's first congressional district. The super PAC's expansion into House and Senate races shows a high level of confidence in Clinton's standing against Trump.

House to Vote on Iran Sanctions Renewal in Lame Duck
21 hours ago

Republican House leaders are planning on taking up a vote to renew the Iran Sanctions Act as soon as the lame-duck session begins in mid-November. The law, which expires on Dec. 31, permits a host of sanctions against Iran's industries, defense, and government. The renewal will likely pass the House, but its status is unclear once it reaches the Senate, and a spokesman from the White House refused to say whether President Obama would sign it into law.

Trump Stops Holding Fundraisers to Benefit GOP
21 hours ago

Just two weeks from Nov. 8, Donald Trump's campaign is not scheduling anymore high-dollar fundraisers, the type which usually benefit the Republican Party as a whole. The move comes as a surprise and could be a big blow to the GOP's turnout operations. Many down-ballot candidates are relying on the party apparatus to turn out voters in their districts and/or states, something that could be compromised. The last formal fundraiser occurred on Wednesday, Oct. 19.


Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.