Cuba's Jewish hostage

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Monday, December 6, 2010; 7:57 PM

RAUL CASTRO'S attempt to win foreign favor and investment for Cuba's moribund economy took a particularly cynical turn on Sunday, when the dictator celebrated Hanukkah with Havana's tiny Jewish community. Broadcast on state television, the event was designed to prove that the regime doesn't share the anti-Semitism of allies such as Iran and Venezuela. There was just one problem: No mention was made of Alan P. Gross, an American from Potomac who passed the holiday in a Cuban military facility, where he has been imprisoned for a year without trial because he tried to help Cuba's Jews.

Mr. Gross, a 61-year-old specialist in international development, traveled to Cuba under a contract from the State Department's Agency for International Development. His mission was to connect members of the Jewish community to the Internet, using laptops and satellite equipment, so that they could contact other Jewish communities and download information from sites such as Wikipedia. Though that is normal activity in most of the world - and Mr. Gross declared his garden-variety equipment to Cuban customs - he was arrested on Dec. 3, 2009.

Senior Cuban officials claimed that Mr. Gross, who is himself Jewish but speaks little Spanish, was sent to Cuba as a spy. Yet a year later, not a single charge has been brought against him - a violation of Cuba's laws. In that time, the contractor's health has badly deteriorated. According to his wife, he has lost 90 pounds and developed back problems that have caused partial paralysis in one leg. Several months ago, one of his daughters was diagnosed with breast cancer and is undergoing chemotherapy. Because of the loss of his income, his wife has been forced to move from their Potomac home to a small apartment in Washington.

Appeals by the State Department and congressional leaders for Mr. Gross's release on humanitarian grounds - or at least the detailing of charges against him - have fallen on deaf ears in Havana. Instead the regime appears to be intent on forcing an exchange of Mr. Gross for one or more of five Cuban intelligence agents who are serving federal prison terms after being tried and convicted on espionage charges. This makes Mr. Gross not a prisoner but a hostage - one whose continued detention is a flagrant violation of international law and human decency.

To its credit, the Obama administration has put further improvement of relations with Cuba on hold while pressing for Mr. Gross's release. A statement released Friday said the State Department had "made it very clear to the Cuban government that the continued detention of Alan Gross is a major impediment to advancing the dialogue between our two countries." Raul Castro should know that orchestrated media events like his Hanukkah celebration are no substitute for reversing this wrong.


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