Sometimes, she just can’t bear to open another e-mail. Every night it’s the same in the not-so-new-anymore ordering of Judy Gross’s world.
There will be plaintive notes from friends and “more distant and more distant friends,” each hoping to help with a situation that seems increasingly hopeless. They’ll have a tip, an inside track at some agency, some department, some ever-so-important U.S. government office that just might be the key to bringing her Alan home.
It has been this way for two long years and four long months, since the day in December 2009 when her husband, Alan Gross, an international aid contractor who lived in Potomac, was imprisoned in Cuba, accused of being a spy. Still, the e-mails come in waves, a symptom of a city whose denizens place great faith in the power of navigating bureaucracies.
“I happen to know Joe Shmoe, who knows this person and that person,” Judy Gross says the e-mailers will declare. “Everybody knows somebody. It’s annoying even though I understand why they’re doing it.”
Judy Gross is not a professional spin-meister, not one of those capital wordsmiths accustomed to shaping narratives for public consumption. Yet she finds herself having to make sense of an international diplomatic and legal nightmare, a swirling haze of senators and presidents, diplomats and lawyers, and even a pope.
She’s tried almost everything to win her husband’s release from a 15-year prison term that feels more like a death sentence as his health worsens. She has huddled with attorneys and pleaded with the Cubans.
Now Gross — who has attracted a cadre of high-powered supporters and advisers — is hoping to nudge Pope Benedict XVI to address her husband’s case when the pontiff meets with Cuban leader Raul Castro during a three-day visit to the island beginning Monday. Her hopes are large and small. Ultimately, she wants her husband permanently released from prison, but in the short term she’s urging Cuban leaders to allow him to travel to the United States for two weeks to visit his 89-year-old mother, who is suffering from inoperable lung cancer. His family is also hoping to reunite him, if only for those few days, with his daughter, Shira — now 27 — who has been diagnosed and treated for breast cancer since Gross’s detention.
At times, in grief and frustration, Gross has complained about the U.S. government’s response to her husband’s case. She accused the White House in a Politico interview of not communicating with her, a claim that drew a gentle that’s-not-so and a pledge of support from a presidential spokesman. And she’s tried stroking the government. “I think they’ve worked really hard on this case,” she says a few days later at her apartment in Cleveland Park. “There’s so many things that go on within the agencies. I’m not privy to everything. I think there are reasons they do things without saying.”
Gross can’t help but think time is running out. Her 62-year-old husband has lost alarming amounts of weight in prison— more than 100 pounds. He also suffers from arthritis that has led to partial paralysis as well as possible prostate problems. “I have one hope left, and that’s, of course, the pope,” she said. “If that doesn’t work, I think he’ll probably die in Cuban prison.”
No pictures of Alan Gross hang on the walls of his wife’s snug apartment. Seeing his face every day would be too painful. Still, there are reminders dangling there before her, small treasures from her husband’s travels to more than 50 countries for international development and aid work: a salt bag from “one of the ’stans,” she’s forgotten which; a hamsa, the hand-shaped amulet that is said to ward off the “evil eye.” One of the mandolins he loved to play sits in a corner.
In Cuba, Alan Gross worked under the umbrella of a pro-democracy project of the U.S. Agency for International Development. His task was to set up an Intranet and to improve Internet access for three non-dissident Jewish communities in a nation that has aggressively sought to limit access to the World Wide Web, according to sources familiar with his case. There’s disagreement among his supporters inside and outside the U.S. government about what he actually brought into Cuba. Some insist he brought in BGANS — satellite devices that can be used to make phone calls and connect to the Internet — and others say he didn’t. He testified during his trial in Cuba that everything passed through Customs. What’s certain is that he attracted attention by traveling to the island frequently in a short period of time, a departure from accepted best practices.
“Unfortunately, he was a casualty of a poorly designed USAID program everyone knew was resented by the Cuban government,” Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), who has visited Gross in prison, said in an interview last week.
The Cuban government accused Gross of “actions against the integrity of the state.” But his wife says his motives were humanitarian rather than political. “He’s not a political guy,” she said. “I asked him once if he wanted to run for the state Senate — he’s so outspoken.” Her husband would have none of it. “I hate politics,” she recalled him telling her. “And he hates politicians,” she added.
During Gross’s trial in Cuba, one witness — an older man — was asked what he saw on the Internet thanks to the Potomac contractor’s efforts. “I saw the world,” Judy Gross recalled the man saying. Her husband had shown him Google Earth.
Before Alan Gross became entranced with Cuba, he and his wife lived in upscale, suburban comfort in Potomac. She grew vegetables and tended azaleas and worked part-time. Her husband built a successful business as an aid and development contractor.
The house in Potomac is gone now, sold because Judy Gross, now 62, can’t maintain her old lifestyle after losing 80 percent of the family income since her husband’s incarceration. She’s gone back to work full time as a program coordinator of a psychiatric day program at Suburban Hospital. But she maintains a second full-time job: sorting through those e-mails, sitting for media interviews and doing all of the other time-consuming and soul-sapping things that come with trying to free her husband.
She knew she needed help. “It was clear after a week that he was in Cuba that I could not handle this myself,” she said.
Empathy for her husband’s plight — incarceration in a country that has antagonized the United States for decades and has a long history of human rights abuses — has drawn the powerful and influential to her side. Recently, the effort has been aided on a pro-bono basis by Don Baer, the savvy former Clinton administration senior adviser who is worldwide vice chairman and chief strategy officer for public relations powerhouse Burson-Marsteller. And Sens. Leahy and Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.) pressed Castro to release Alan Gross during a two-hour meeting in Havana in February. During the congressional delegation’s visit, Cuban authorities told Leahy “that they do not consider [Gross] a spy,” Leahy said in an interview.
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) has sent a letter to the pope asking for help winning Gross’s release. And, less publicly, U.S. officials have delicately asked the Vatican to get involved.
“We don’t want to tell them what to do,” a senior U.S. government official said. “They have not told us that they wouldn’t do it. It’s more of a question of how and when . . . They have said that they are interested in the case and they would see what they could do.”
But there’s no guarantee. “Certainly neither the Cubans nor the Vatican want to make this a centerpiece of the visit,” the senior U.S. official said. A Vatican spokesman did not respond to an interview request, and a spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops declined to comment.
Inevitably, Gross’s case has become ever more entangled in the long, intractable standoff between the United States and Cuba. Havana has sought for years to win the release of five Cuban intelligence agents convicted in U.S. courts in 2001 of spying. The faces of the Cuban Five appear on billboards in Havana, and they are relentlessly promoted as heroes by the Castro government. When Leahy was in Havana, he said a Cuban publication ran a full-page notice that read: “Obama Give Me Five.”
In discussions with high-ranking U.S. officials, the Cubans have alluded to a possible prisoner swap, a senior U.S. government official said. “Over time, they’ve made even more direct connections to releasing the Cuban Five — all five,” the government official said. “If they’re really going five for one . . . is that a reciprocal humanitarian gesture?”
Four of the Cuban Five remain imprisoned in the United States, and one — Rene Gonzalez — is on parole after being released, serving as a caretaker at an undisclosed location in the United States, according to his lawyer, Philip Horowitz. On March 19, a U.S. district court judge in Miami granted Gonzalez permission — despite the objections of federal prosecutors — to travel to Cuba to visit his brother, who is suffering from cancer.
“I empathize with Rene Gonzalez’s need to visit a dying family member and am pleased that he has been granted permission for a temporary visit,” Judy Gross said in a statement.
She keeps her husband’s letters, written in longhand on lined, yellow paper, stuffed in an old Amazon.com box and tucked away. “They’re no solace at all,” she said. “Just makes me feel more for him.” After much prompting, she agreed to pull them out for a few moments and to read a single line aloud: “Please send letters, M&Ms, sunflower seeds, almonds.”
Visiting him in Cuba isn’t much solace either. “It’s a strain,” she said. “We’re in this little room. We know we have no privacy, and they’re taping and watching.”
Once, the Cubans allowed them to stay in a private house, but that was “weird, too — a guard sitting in every room,” she said. When she walked outside to the garden, there was another guard, and she found her eyes drawn to his holstered sidearm.
In his cell, Alan Gross has figured out exactly how many circles he has to walk to reach a mile. They’ve given him a television, and he’s become a fan of Cuban baseball.
And he’s learning a little Spanish, too — mostly curse words.