The wife of U.S. aid contractor Alan Gross, who is serving a lengthy prison sentence in Cuba on subversion charges, asked Monday for President Barack Obama's intercession in the case.
"I spoke with Alan two days ago. Never have I heard him more hopeless and depressed," Judy Gross said during a protest outside the Cuban Interests Section in Washington.
Accompanied by a score of supporters from the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, she called on Americans to write letters to newspapers and politicians, including President Obama, urging action on behalf of her husband.
Gross, now 62, was arrested in Havana on Dec. 3, 2009, in possession of satellite communications equipment he said he was planning to distribute among Cuba's Jewish community.
The Cuban government said he was illegally aiding dissidents and inciting subversion on the Communist-ruled island. In August, Cuba's highest court upheld the 15-year jail sentence imposed on Gross in March.
Judy Gross asked for increased pressure on Congress and Obama to obtain the release of her husband on humanitarian grounds, on the eve of the second anniversary of his arrest and imprisonment.
"Please join us in the effort to keep Alan's case top-of-mind with policymakers," she said Monday. "Tell everyone you know about Alan."
A Washington-area rabbi who visited Alan Gross in Havana said earlier this month that the Maryland native wants to be swapped for five Cuban spies held in the United States.
Gross expressed "anger and frustration" about his situation, Rabbi David Shneyer said in a message to his congregation in Bethesda, Maryland. He said he spent nearly two hours with Gross.
"Having learned about the recent swap of (Israeli soldier) Gilad Shalit for more than 1,000 imprisoned Palestinians, (Gross) felt that the U.S. and Cuba could do the same for him and the 'Cuban Five,'" Shneyer said.
The five - Gerardo Hernández, René Gonázlez, Ramón Labañino, Antonio Guerrero and Fernando González - were arrested in 1998 and convicted three years later by a federal jury in Miami.
Though one of the group, Rene Gonzalez, completed his custodial sentence in October and was released, he has not been permitted to go home, as the federal courts say he must serve his three-year probation on U.S. soil.
Press accounts said Havana rejected a U.S. proposal to allow René González to return to Cuba now in exchange for Gross' freedom, countering with a demand for the release of the four spies who remain in prison.
While acknowledging that the five are intelligence agents, Havana insists they were spying on Miami's Cuban exile community, not the U.S. government.
Cuba said the men were sent to Florida in the wake of several terror bombings in Havana allegedly masterminded by anti-Castro militant Luis Posada Carriles, a former CIA operative.
Saturday will mark two years since Alan Gross, 62, was arrested in Cuba.Judy Gross said that in the past year she twice thought her husband might be able to return to the United States, but both times she was disappointed.
"The Cubans will say one thing one day and change their minds the next," said Gross, who had to sell the couple's home and now lives in Washington.
Gross has rarely talked about her husband's situation, giving interviews only infrequently and waiting for her husband's case to work its way through the Cuban legal process. She hired a prominent Washington litigator who advised her against saying much because of the sensitivity of the case and also because it was working through the Cuban courts. But she acknowledged Monday that staying silent "didn't work."
Gross said in an interview that her husband asked the company he was working for to contact the Cuban government to clear his work setting up internet for the island's small Jewish community. But the company, Maryland-based Development Alternatives Inc., refused to contact Cuban officials and refused to let him contact anyone either, she said. He was told separately not to worry about the project by a co-worker, she said.
I spoke with Alan two days ago. Never have I heard him more hopeless and depressed.
A spokesman for DAI, Steven O'Connor, said in a statement that Gross "designed, proposed, and implemented this work" for the company, which had a government contract for a democracy-building project on the Communist island. Gross was a subcontractor for the company, which had a contract financed by the U.S. Agency for International Development. The company wants to correct some of the misconceptions surrounding his work, O'Connor wrote, but "now is not the time."
Judy Gross said her husband believes he was duped by the company, a characterization O'Connor disputed. Gross called himself a "trusting fool" in Cuban court testimony released by his lawyer and said, "I was duped. I was used."
In September, former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson visited Cuba and told reporters he had been invited to negotiate Gross' release. But Richardson's efforts imploded after he called Gross a hostage in one interview. Cuban officials accused him of trying to blackmail them, and he returned empty handed.
Gross said she "had a lot of hopes dashed" when Richardson was unsuccessful and that he had been very confident before going down.
"I don't fault anyone or anybody on that because I don't really know what happened," she said.
U.S. officials also reportedly tried to negotiate Gross' release by offering to let a convicted Cuban spy return home, but Cuba rebuffed the offer.
Gross said both she and her husband are now less hopeful about his release anytime soon. And she said she is worried that if President Barack Obama isn't re-elected, a Republican president may be less willing to work with Cuba to secure his release. She urged Obama to make a statement about the case, which arose just as the Obama administration was making tentative movements to ease decades of U.S. tensions with Cuba.
For now, Alan Gross is generally allowed to call his wife once a week, on Fridays. Judy Gross said she last spoke to him days ago and he sounded "more hopeless and more depressed" than before. He has lost more than 100 pounds while in Havana's maximum-security Villa Marista prison but is now gaining weight, she said, adding arthritis now makes it difficult for him to walk.
She was allowed to visit him in Cuba earlier this month, her third visit since his arrest. She said she brought chocolate chip cookies, pictures of his family, and issues of his favorite magazine, The Economist.
Based on reporting by EFE and the Associated Press.