The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

U.S. contractor has spent five years in a Cuban prison for distributing Internet equipment

Five years to the day after his arrest in Cuba on espionage charges, former U.S. contractor Alan Gross, shown in a file photo with his wife, Judy, is threatening a hunger strike, refusing almost all visitors and predicting he will die in prison if he isn’t freed by his 66th birthday in May, relatives and backers said Wednesday. (AP Photo/Courtesy Gross family, File)

The Obama White House has once again called for Cuba to release 65-year-old Alan Gross, a U.S. citizen who is being described in widely-distributed press reports as an "American government contractor."

But on the fifth anniversary of Gross's imprisonment on a 15-year sentence, it's worth remembering the nature of the crimes against Cuba's "independence or territorial integrity” with which Gross has been charged. Gross, working with the U.S. Agency for International Development, distributed equipment intended to get Jewish Cubans online, including laptops, Wi-Fi routers and satellite phones.

Those devices look to Cuban authorities to be the tools of subversion. (They look that way to other governments, too, as the new Freedom House report on the state of online freedoms in 2014 makes plain.) The Internet is a particularly fraught question for the Cuban government, which has long believed that it is part of the country's technological sovereignty to limit how Cubans go online.

On Wednesday, the White House said in a statement:

Five years ago today Alan Gross was arrested for his efforts to help ordinary Cuban citizens have greater access to information through the Internet.  The Administration remains focused on securing Alan's freedom from a Cuban prison, and returning him safely to his wife and children, where he belongs.
We remain deeply concerned for Alan's health, and reiterate our call for his release.  The Cuban Government's release of Alan on humanitarian grounds would remove an impediment to more constructive relations between the United States and Cuba.

Gross, in should be noted, was in Cuba as part of a controversial pro-democracy program, and he represented himself not as a U.S. government contractor but as being in Cuba to do philanthropic work.

But any discussion of Gross's imprisonment is incomplete without a recognition that he wasn't in Cuba distributing guns or tank parts. He was passing out equipmentso that people could get online, which is something that the Cuban government considers quite dangerous enough.