As a prisoner of the Cuban government for five years, Alan Gross walked 10,000 steps a day to pass the time and preserve his strength.
Now, a year after his release, his daily strolls take him through the capital of the free world. The former USAID subcontractor ambles miles from his Northwest Washington condominium — through the National Zoo and Rock Creek Park, down to the Washington Monument, across the Memorial Bridge and back up 17th Street.
Gross, a longtime development worker, was arrested in 2009 on suspicion of trying to destabilize the Communist government regime. He had been working in Cuba on behalf of the U.S. government, helping the local Jewish community gain access to the Internet.
President Obama announced Gross’s freedom last Dec. 17, in a deal involving an exchange of prisoners. That day, Obama declared plans to reestablish ties with Cuba after more than 50 years of an embargo.
“Coming home was just an incredible sense of happiness,” Gross said in an interview with The Washington Post. “From Dec. 3, 2009, the day I was arrested, my life became a bit surreal, and it still is today.”
There was no house in Potomac, Md., to return to — Gross’s wife, Judy, sold it to pay off legal and other bills. Gross went from low-profile NGO worker to speaking with the president, sitting with first lady Michelle Obama during the State of the Union address, dining with former attorney general Eric H. Holder Jr. and traveling to Italy to visit Pope Francis. He routinely fields phone calls from people looking to invest in Cuba.
During five years in a Cuban military hospital and jail cells, Gross shed more than 100 pounds and lost five teeth. His gaunt and gap-toothed appearance made him easily recognizable to Washingtonians when he returned.
His introduction to this country’s selfie obsession came, he said, when people stopped him on his walks and asked if he would pose for a picture. “Then I got my temporary teeth,” Gross said. “And I lost my brand, and so people didn’t recognize me anymore.”
Gross, 66, has learned to use Twitter and maintains an active presence on the social media app. “The level of anger in this world is unhealthy. Chill,” he posted three times in one week. He has expressed support for Democratic causes from unions to Planned Parenthood.
Although he has given dozens of paid, private speeches across the country, he only recently agreed to media interviews about his ordeal. Earlier, he said, he feared interfering with negotiations with Cuba or prompting retaliation against certain other prisoners — all of whom have now been freed. He has written a book about his experience and is looking for a publisher.
U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), who advocated for Gross’s release and flew with other lawmakers and officials to retrieve him, said his former constituent has turned into a valuable advocate for normalizing relations with Cuba.
“He’s a great person to take on that cause because he has been the victim of this particular Cuban government,” Van Hollen said. “He knows the problems with this particular regime, but has lent his voice to those who recognize that the best way to improve the condition of the Cuban people is to increase communications and interaction between our two people.”
Gross says he’s met with members of Congress in both parties to describe his experience. He has not sat down with the loudest critics of Cuba, who have blocked U.S. efforts to roll back trade restrictions and appoint an ambassador to represent the interests of the United States in Havana.
“I’m angry at what happened. But my sincere interest is to focus more on the next five years than the last five years, and I think that I’ll get over my anger,” said Gross. “The clear majority of Cuban Americans are in favor of normalization, and I think that’s a demonstration that they are getting over their anger. They might have lost everything in Cuba. I lost everything, too.”
Gross is determinedly upbeat — sometimes jarringly so — and cracks jokes at some of the darkest parts of his imprisonment. He explains that his jailers threatened to hang him and pull off his fingernails, then quips that he called two seemingly clueless interrogators “Cheech” and “Chong,” after the 1980s American comedy duo. The reference, he says, was utterly lost on his captors.
Finding something to laugh at every day was an essential part of surviving imprisonment. “When I would laugh, my cellmates would laugh,” Gross said. “It was a way to cope. Humor is a good coping mechanism.”
Since Gross’s imprisonment, Cuba has taken steps to cut the price of accessing the Internet and made WiFi networks available in Havana.
Gross is trying to launch an economic and community development consulting business, but he says the accusations levied against him by Cuba still hang over him, limiting his ability to work overseas. He maintains that he did not know that it was illegal according to Cuban law for him to be paid by the United States to distribute equipment in Cuba — a contention that continues to draw scrutiny.
An investigation by the Associated Press uncovered internal reports in which Gross described his work as “very risky” and identified himself as a member of a humanitarian group, instead of someone working on behalf of the U.S. government.
“I worked in 54 countries, and we were not aware that there was any particular danger in going to Cuba,” Gross said, his voice growing testy. “Raul Castro admitted to Jimmy Carter that he knew I wasn’t a spy, so we should put that to rest at this point.”
In 2012, Gross filed a lawsuit against the U.S. government and Development Alternatives, the contractor overseeing his project in Cuba, alleging they failed to prepare him for a dangerous assignment. The lawsuit against the government was dismissed, and Gross reached a confidential settlement with the contractor. He also was set to receive the bulk of a $3.2 million payment from USAID to the contractor, which was the result of a separate claim. Gross and his attorney declined to provide details.
To mark the first anniversary of his return, Gross plans to travel to Atlanta to visit friends, family and the National Center for Civil and Human Rights.
The toughest part of readjusting to life in the United States, he says, is seeing his weight balloon. He describes his pre-imprisonment body as rotund and says that as he continues to enjoy abundant and delicious food, he is once again at risk of not being able to look down and see his toes.
That makes his daily walks through Washington all the more important.
Some days, Gross said, when there aren’t too many people around, he takes out a Cuban cigar to enjoy as he strolls.