July 29, 2011

ALAN P. GROSS, the U.S. Agency for International Development subcontractor who committed what Cuba considers the unconscionable offense of making the Internet available to members of its minuscule Jewish community, has almost exhausted possible judicial appeals of his 15-year prison sentence.

Mr. Gross, 62, a resident of Potomac, was arrested in December 2009 as he prepared to fly home from Havana. Convicted on trumped-up charges in March this year, he appeared a few days ago before Cuba’s highest tribunal to appeal his conviction and plead for release. The outcome of his appeal, expected in the coming days, is certain to be dictated one way or another by Cuban leader Raul Castro — and will be a sign of whether Cuba is remotely interested in better relations with Washington.

Cuba, besides its repressive ally Venezuela, is virtually the only place in the Western Hemisphere where distributing laptop computers and satellite phone equipment intended to connect people to the Internet — Mr. Gross’s supposed “crime” — could be construed as subversive. The regime in Havana is so brittle and creaky that it blanches at the idea of its subjects communicating too freely with the outside world, lest they undermine a communist system whose attempts at economic development have delivered scanty results.

There are plenty of humanitarian reasons to release Mr. Gross, who has been confined for 19 months. Somewhat overweight when he was arrested, Mr. Gross has lost 100 pounds, according to his wife and other American visitors who have been allowed to meet with him; he also suffers from gout, ulcers and arthritis. His daughter is struggling with cancer, and his mother is reported to be in poor health.

Cuban authorities have portrayed Mr. Gross as a spy involved in an enterprise aimed at undermining the regime. That seems unlikely in the extreme. In fact, Mr. Gross, a veteran development worker who had minimal command of Spanish, was part of a democratization project of the sort the U.S. government runs in countries all over the world.

At the time of his arrest, Mr. Gross was working for Development Alternatives Inc., a Bethesda firm that had won a $6 million government contract to promote democracy in Cuba. His work consisted mainly of providing computers and satellite phones to Cuban Jews, a community thought to number about 1,500, so they could access the Internet, whose use is restricted in Cuba, and contact Jewish communities beyond Cuba’s shores. Not exactly a cloak-and-dagger project likely to bring the Castro brothers to their knees.

The Obama administration has made it clear that any improvement in relations with Cuba is on hold pending Mr. Gross’s release. That’s a fitting response to the communist regime’s knee-jerk behavior in persecuting an American whose “crime,” if any, may have been an excess of naivete.