By Mary Beth Sheridan and Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, January 10, 2011; 8:26 PM
At first, the arrest of a U.S. government contractor in Cuba seemed like just one more irritant in a tense bilateral relationship. But 13 months later, Alan P. Gross is still in prison, his family in the Washington area is desperate, and his detention has emerged as a major obstacle to progress between the former Cold War enemies.
On Tuesday morning, 17 religious leaders, including Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl, the highest-ranking Roman Catholic prelate in Washington, will hold a prayer service to appeal for a break in a case that has become more intractable than virtually anyone expected.
"We'd love to have this lead to his freedom," said the Rev. Clark Lobenstine, executive director of the InterFaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington, which organized the event.
"Nothing else has."
Gross was picked up while working to provide satellite-phone and computer gear to Cuban Jews to help them communicate with Jews abroad. It was part of a controversial, secretive American democracy-promotion program that mushroomed under the George W. Bush administration.
Some Cuban officials have alleged that Gross is a spy, but the U.S. government has strongly denied that. He has not been charged.
The prayer service, at 9:45 a.m. at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Northwest Washington, occurs as State Department officials are in Cuba to attend the latest in a series of periodic meetings on migration. They will once again press for Gross's freedom, State Department officials said.
The contractor's detention has ended a thaw in relations with Cuba that occurred after the Obama administration took office. U.S. officials have put on hold plans to make it easier for U.S. religious, cultural and sports groups to visit Cuba.
Increasing such "people-to-people programs" is "still our objective," Arturo Valenzuela, assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, said last week.
However, "we've made it clear to the Cuban authorities that it's very difficult to move to greater engagement in the context where they have continued to hold Alan Gross," he said at the Brookings Institution.
Gross, who lived in Potomac with his wife and has two daughters, traveled for years to the Middle East, Africa and other places to work on development projects. But the 61-year-old contractor appeared oblivious to the dangers involved when he started doing U.S. democracy-promotion work in Cuba, friends and family say.
It is illegal under Cuban law to bring satellite phone equipment to Cuba without a permit, something that apparently did not trouble Gross.
"It has been an extraordinarily difficult year," his wife, Judy, said in an e-mail. "Our 26-year-old daughter is fighting breast cancer. We have had to move out of our family home, and we have endured endless fear of what may happen to Alan."
U.S. officials say Gross has received adequate food and medical care while in Villa Marista, the Cuban state security prison. But, troubled by gout and other illnesses, he has shed almost 90 pounds from his original 250. His wife said she was even more concerned about his mental health.
"He has endured so much being held in captivity for over a year, with no idea what will happen to him," she said in the e-mail. "And now, with our daughter's cancer diagnosis, he feels like a caged lion."
A spokesman at the Cuban Interests Section, the country's de facto embassy in Washington, declined to comment on the case.
Gross worked as a subcontractor for Bethesda-based Development Alternatives, which was hired by the U.S. Agency for International Development after it received a flood of money from the Bush administration for democracy promotion in Cuba.
"We're sort of in disbelief that this has not been resolved," the company's president, James Boomgard, said of Gross's case.
Gross's arrest cast a spotlight on a program that has been criticized by Democrats as wasteful and overly politicized. USAID said in a statement that it continued to carry out democracy programs in Cuba "to empower Cuban civil society to advocate for greater democratic freedoms and respect for human dignity."
But under congressional pressure, oversight has strengthened and some practices have changed, officials say. For example, USAID programs no longer send satellite communications gear into Cuba, official say.
Still, Cuba has not said what it will do with Gross.
Ron Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, said organizers of the prayer service hope it will raise awareness of Gross's plight among U.S. and Cuban officials. It is to include religious leaders from Buddhist, Hindu, Islamic, Jewish, Protestant and other faiths.
"The State Department has been working very hard, but still, there's a man from our community here in Washington who remains captured, who remains incarcerated in Cuba, and he hasn't been told why," Halber said.