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Judy and Alan Gross's family is at heart of standoff between Washington and Cuba

As for why the Jewish community was chosen, the senior official said that "if you look at civil society groups in Cuba, there is a fairly strong religious component."

USAID said in a statement that Gross was chosen because of his "strong expertise in sustainable development approaches, experience working in difficult environments and understanding of technological approaches to strengthening civil society."

Critics say the Gross case has exposed how such secretive programs can backfire. Some lawmakers, such as Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), have urged a different approach -- like "people-to-people" exchanges worked out with the Cuban authorities. Defenders of the democracy programs say that they provide important support for dissidents and human rights activists. But even some of them have been stunned by the Gross case.

"We agree with the program, but this is rookieville," one congressional staffer said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

A living nightmare

For Gross's family, what once seemed to be another of Alan's adventures has turned into a nightmare.

He has been allowed to call home five times.

"The first couple times he sounded really upbeat," his wife said. The third time, though, he begged Judy to send medication. Troubled by gout and ulcers, Alan began to shy away from the fried Cuban food, eating mainly fruit. He has shed 72 pounds from his 6-foot, 250-pound frame.

Judy's worst moments come when she thinks Alan may never come home.

"The problem is, the Cubans don't want to talk to us very much, or at all actually," she said. A spokesman for the Cuban Interests Section in Washington said Gross's case remains under investigation.

Cuba analysts say the most likely outcome is that Gross will be charged with a crime and then expelled.

The last time he called home, Alan seemed disoriented, Judy said.

"The thing that really struck me is, he asked me for his mother's phone number. This is somebody who calls his mother every day," Judy said.

"It was the worst I heard," she added. "He sounded very stressed and low."

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