Zuckman Crosses Cultures in Quest to Free Cuban Prisoner

Jill Zuckman
National Journal
Christopher Snow Hopkins
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 »
PROCEDURES NOT FOLLOWED
Trump Not on Ballot in Minnesota
2 days ago
THE LATEST
MOB RULE?
Trump on Immigration: ‘I Don’t Know, You Tell Me’
2 days ago
THE LATEST

Perhaps Donald Trump can take a plebiscite to solve this whole messy immigration thing. At a Fox News town hall with Sean Hannity last night, Trump essentially admitted he's "stumped," turning to the audience and asking: “Can we go through a process or do you think they have to get out? Tell me, I mean, I don’t know, you tell me.”

Source:
BIG CHANGE FROM WHEN HE SELF-FINANCED
Trump Enriching His Businesses with Donor Money
4 days ago
WHY WE CARE

Donald Trump "nearly quintupled the monthly rent his presidential campaign pays for its headquarters at Trump Tower to $169,758 in July, when he was raising funds from donors, compared with March, when he was self-funding his campaign." A campaign spokesman "said the increased office space was needed to accommodate an anticipated increase in employees," but the campaign's paid staff has actually dipped by about 25 since March. The campaign has also paid his golf courses and restaurants about $260,000 since mid-May.

Source:
QUESTIONS OVER IMMIGRATION POLICY
Trump Cancels Rallies
4 days ago
THE LATEST

Donald Trump probably isn't taking seriously John Oliver's suggestion that he quit the race. But he has canceled or rescheduled rallies amid questions over his stance on immigration. Trump rescheduled a speech on the topic that he was set to give later this week. Plus, he's also nixed planned rallies in Oregon and Las Vegas this month.

Source:
‘STRATEGY AND MESSAGING’
Sean Hannity Is Also Advising Trump
5 days ago
THE LATEST

Donald Trump's Fox News brain trust keeps growing. After it was revealed that former Fox chief Roger Ailes is informally advising Trump on debate preparation, host Sean Hannity admitted over the weekend that he's also advising Trump on "strategy and messaging." He told the New York Times: “I’m not hiding the fact that I want Donald Trump to be the next president of the United States. I never claimed to be a journalist.”

Source:
×