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Detainee was helping Cuban Jewish groups involved in U.S. democracy project

By Mary Beth Sheridan and William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, January 13, 2010; A12

An American who has been jailed in Cuba and denounced as a spy is a 60-year-old international development expert from Potomac who was working on a U.S. government project to help the island's Jewish community access the Internet, according to former colleagues and other sources.

The arrest of Alan P. Gross was the clearest sign yet of a chill between Washington and Havana, after an initial warming under the Obama administration. The Cuban government has not charged Gross. But it has kept him in prison since his Dec. 4 arrest and has portrayed his activities as part of a long-running U.S. campaign for regime change in the island nation.

Gross was working for a controversial democracy-promotion program -- which had ballooned under the Bush administration -- to provide communications equipment to break the Cuban government's "information blockade."

Friends said Gross was excited about the program and did not seem to realize the danger he faced.

"It was probably pure naiveness, innocence -- not seeing anything wrong with what he was doing," said Bob Rourke, a development consultant who has known Gross for 20 years. "He's definitely not a shrewd, calculating person. He's someone who genuinely gets into situations because he thinks he can help."

The U.S. government and Gross's employer, Bethesda-based Development Alternatives Inc., had declined to identify him until now, apparently hoping that the case would be resolved quietly. But last week, the Cuban National Assembly president, Ricardo Alarcón, accused Gross of being "contracted to work for American intelligence services."

The U.S. government has denied that, describing Development Alternatives as a contractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development.

The case has also raised concerns that the Jewish groups involved in the project could face repercussions. Under Cuban law, it is illegal for citizens to cooperate with U.S. democracy programs.

Sources familiar with Gross's work said he was helping Cubans download music, access Wikipedia and read the Encyclopaedia Britannica, which was provided on flash drives. The project is also aimed at helping members of the small Cuban Jewish community communicate among themselves and with Jews overseas, the sources said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the case.

Asked about Gross's work, the president of Development Alternatives, James Boomgard, said he was trying to facilitate communications in "a nonviolent, non-dissident religious organization."

"Alan is a social worker by training and a dedicated international development professional with 25 years of experience delivering humanitarian assistance to people in some 50 countries around the world," he said in a statement.

Gross's wife, Judy, issued a brief statement saying that it was "a difficult time for our family," which includes two daughters in their 20s. "We are grateful for the support and prayers that we have received for the safe and speedy return of our husband and father," it added.

Former colleagues said Gross has worked for decades on economic development programs, often as a contractor for USAID. In recent years, he became fascinated by technology, they said, including ways to connect people to the Internet. One recent assignment involved setting up satellite connections for development organizations in Afghanistan, said Bob Otto, a former colleague.

"He's like somebody's neighbor. He's no James Bond, that's for sure," Otto said.

Booth reported from Mexico City. Staff researcher Julie Tate and staff writers Michelle Boorstein and Laura Blumenfeld contributed to this report.

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