American Imprisoned in Cuba: ‘Life in Prison Is Not a Life Worth Living’

Alan Gross said goodbye to his family during their most recent visit to Havana.

Supporters rally on behalf of Alan Gross, a U.S. citizen imprisoned in Cuba, in front of the White House in December 2013.
National Journal
Kaveh Waddell
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Kaveh Waddell
Aug. 4, 2014, 10:44 a.m.

After spend­ing more than four years in a Cuban pris­on, Alan Gross, an Amer­ic­an, told his at­tor­ney that “life in pris­on is not a life worth liv­ing.” He said good­bye to his wife and young­est daugh­ter, and asked the Cuban gov­ern­ment to re­turn his body to the U.S. if he should die in pris­on. His re­quest was denied.

Gross was ar­res­ted in 2009 in Havana, where had been work­ing to set up In­ter­net ac­cess for the Cuban Jew­ish com­munity us­ing satel­lite tech­no­logy that the Cuban gov­ern­ment would be un­able to track or con­trol. Gross had traveled to the is­land five times in 2009 as a part of a USAID pro­gram that sprouted from the 1996 Helms-Bur­ton Act, which al­loc­ated money to set up in­form­a­tion net­works out­side of the Cuban gov­ern­ment’s reach. Al­though Gross said he was not spe­cific­ally aid­ing dis­sid­ents, any work for the Helms-Bur­ton Act is con­sidered il­leg­al in Cuba, and Gross was charged with crimes against the state in 2011. He is serving a 15-year pris­on term.

Since Gross’s ar­rest in 2009, USAID has come un­der ad­di­tion­al fire for its op­er­a­tions in Cuba. After a so­cial net­work called Zun­Zun­eo, a Cuban ver­sion of Twit­ter, was ex­posed as a USAID-sponsored tool, law­makers chas­tised the agency for over­step­ping its mis­sion. “Does it taint all USAID em­ploy­ees as spies?” asked Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., in an April hear­ing.

Well in­to his fourth year of im­pris­on­ment, Gross’s health is fail­ing. He’s lost much of the vis­ion in his right eye, his hips are fail­ing, and his “emo­tion­al de­teri­or­a­tion has been severe,” ac­cord­ing to his law­yer, Scott Gil­bert. “Both gov­ern­ments need to know that Alan plans to end his life in an ef­fort to end this agony,” Gil­bert said in June.

The Cuban gov­ern­ment has pre­vi­ously in­dic­ated that it would con­sider swap­ping Gross for three Cuban pris­on­ers that have been held in the U.S. since they were ar­res­ted in 1998. Two Cuban agents that were ar­res­ted along­side them were re­leased in June and are push­ing for the pris­on­er ex­change. The agents see a pre­ced­ent in the Amer­ic­an deal that swapped five Taliban de­tain­ees for Sgt. Bowe Ber­g­dahl, who was be­ing held in Afgh­anistan, in May. “The only thing miss­ing is polit­ic­al will,” said Fernando Gonza­lez, one of the Cubans that was freed in June, after his re­lease.

A let­ter signed by 300 Amer­ic­an rab­bis urged Pres­id­ent Obama this week to “take ac­tion” to se­cure Gross’s re­turn. The U.S. has re­peatedly de­man­ded his re­lease, but re­jects the pris­on­er trans­fer Cuba pro­posed.

Be­fore Gross’s cap­ture or the Zun­Zun­eo scan­dal, when Obama had just be­gun his first term, the pres­id­ent called for a “new be­gin­ning with Cuba.” The White House main­tains that the dis­pute over Alan Gross is the biggest reas­on why there is no such fresh start in sight, but little time re­mains to over­come the obstacle. If no deal is struck and Gross passes away in a Havana jail cell, a new be­gin­ning seems even less likely than it did in 2009.

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