It has been this way for two long years and four long months, since the day in December 2009 when her husband, Alan Gross, an international aid contractor who lived in Potomac, was imprisoned in Cuba, accused of being a spy. Still, the e-mails come in waves, a symptom of a city whose denizens place great faith in the power of navigating bureaucracies.
“I happen to know Joe Shmoe, who knows this person and that person,” Judy Gross says the e-mailers will declare. “Everybody knows somebody. It’s annoying even though I understand why they’re doing it.”
Judy Gross is not a professional spin-meister, not one of those capital wordsmiths accustomed to shaping narratives for public consumption. Yet she finds herself having to make sense of an international diplomatic and legal nightmare, a swirling haze of senators and presidents, diplomats and lawyers, and even a pope.
She’s tried almost everything to win her husband’s release from a 15-year prison term that feels more like a death sentence as his health worsens. She has huddled with attorneys and pleaded with the Cubans.
Now Gross — who has attracted a cadre of high-powered supporters and advisers — is hoping to nudge Pope Benedict XVI to address her husband’s case when the pontiff meets with Cuban leader Raul Castro during a three-day visit to the island beginning Monday. Her hopes are large and small. Ultimately, she wants her husband permanently released from prison, but in the short term she’s urging Cuban leaders to allow him to travel to the United States for two weeks to visit his 89-year-old mother, who is suffering from inoperable lung cancer. His family is also hoping to reunite him, if only for those few days, with his daughter, Shira — now 27 — who has been diagnosed and treated for breast cancer since Gross’s detention.
At times, in grief and frustration, Gross has complained about the U.S. government’s response to her husband’s case. She accused the White House in a Politico interview of not communicating with her, a claim that drew a gentle that’s-not-so and a pledge of support from a presidential spokesman. And she’s tried stroking the government. “I think they’ve worked really hard on this case,” she says a few days later at her apartment in Cleveland Park. “There’s so many things that go on within the agencies. I’m not privy to everything. I think there are reasons they do things without saying.”
Gross can’t help but think time is running out. Her 62-year-old husband has lost alarming amounts of weight in prison— more than 100 pounds. He also suffers from arthritis that has led to partial paralysis as well as possible prostate problems. “I have one hope left, and that’s, of course, the pope,” she said. “If that doesn’t work, I think he’ll probably die in Cuban prison.”