Indirectly critical of what his family views as lackluster efforts to secure his release, Gross notes that this administration and its predecessors “have taken extraordinary steps to obtain the release of other U.S. citizens imprisoned abroad.” But unlike in those cases, Obama has sent no special emissaries nor agreed to negotiate over him.
The letter, a copy of which was provided to The Washington Post, is to be delivered to the White House on Tuesday — the anniversary of Gross’s 2009 arrest in Havana. It is part of a new strategy by his family to direct pressure at Obama, including in a demonstration Tuesday outside the White House led by his Gross’s wife, Judy.
Gross’s disenchantment with the administration over his treatment is shared by a growing number of U.S. lawmakers, who see him as one of the last victims of the Cold War and the decades-long freeze in U.S.-Cuba relations that has persisted despite Obama’s early pledges to work toward a thaw.
In a letter to the president last month, a bipartisan group of 66 senators, spearheaded by Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), called Gross’s case “a matter of grave urgency” and urged Obama to “act expeditiously to take whatever steps are in the national interest to obtain his release.” The senators told Obama that they “stand ready to support your administration in pursuit of this worthy goal.”
A week earlier, a separate group of 14 lawmakers, led by Cuban American Sens. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), exhorted Obama to continue his policy of demanding Gross’s “immediate and unconditional release.”
In a statement Monday, Leahy countered that “instead of simply demanding Mr. Gross’ unconditional release — which has achieved nothing in four years, and which his family regards as a death sentence — they should not shrink from the obligation to negotiate for his freedom.”
Gross, a 64-year-old Maryland native, was detained while distributing communications equipment to Jewish groups in Cuba under a contract with the U.S. Agency for International Development. He was convicted in 2011 of crimes against the Cuban state and sentenced to 15 years.
His continued imprisonment comes as the administration has eased restrictions on American travel to Cuba and held direct negotiations over a range of issues, including immigration, postal services and cooperation on possible oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico and the Straits of Florida.
Although critical of the Cuban government’s restrictions on civil rights and personal freedom, Obama has indicated that he has little enthusiasm for the trade embargo and economic sanctions imposed on Cuba more than a half-
“The notion that the same policies that we put in place in 1961 would somehow still be as effective as they are today in the age of the Internet and Google and world travel doesn’t make sense,” he said at a Miami fundraiser last month. “We have to find new mechanisms and new tools.”
But Cuban American lawmakers have consistently opposed negotiating with the island’s communist government. Although public opinion in that community has begun to shift away from a hard line on Cuba, any high-level talks remain politically dicey for Obama.
Progress on the Gross case also has been stymied by Havana’s demands for the release of five Cubans arrested in Florida in 1998 and given lengthy prison sentences after being found guilty of acting as Cuban agents. Havana has acknowledged that the five were spying on Cuban exile organizations and U.S. military installations but said the surveillance was part of an attempt to prevent what had been a series of exile-
organized attacks on the island.
One of the five was paroled in 2011 and returned to Cuba. A second is eligible for parole in February. Being a Cuban national, the “greatest likelihood is that he would be deported almost immediately,” said a U.S. official who was familiar with the case.
The official, who was not authorized to discuss the case publicly and spoke on the condition of anonymity, said there is some hope within the administration that the anticipated release could bring progress on the Gross front.
Gross’s attorney, Scott Gilbert, said in an interview that the Cubans “have made very clear to the United States, and to us directly to pass on, that they’re willing to sit down and meet with no preconditions to discuss Alan’s release.”
Roberta Jacobson, the assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, said, “Some very senior people in this administration have put their minds and attention on trying to get Alan Gross out of prison, as well as some senior members of Congress. In the end, it is up to the Cubans, and they have not been responsive.”
“We continue to urge the Cuban government to release him immediately,” she said.
In his letter to Obama, Gross wrote: “I find myself asking the same question — why? Why am I still here? With the utmost respect, Mr. President, I fear that my government — the very government I was serving when I began this nightmare — has abandoned me.”
A November lawsuit filed by Gross and his wife in federal court was dismissed this year. They sought to hold USAID and his employer, Bethesda-based Development Alternatives Inc., “accountable for their role in Mr. Gross’ detention and imprisonment, including their abject failure to advise, train and protect him.”
At the time of his arrest, Gross was on his fifth trip to Cuba, where he had been subcontracted to secretly distribute Internet equipment to the island’s small Jewish community under a U.S. democracy-building program. Although the Internet is now available to Cuban citizens on a limited basis, it was prohibited at the time for all but government-sanctioned officials and individuals.
The suit contended that Gross, who does not speak Spanish, was not informed of the possible danger of the mission and was left poorly prepared.