Detained: December 3, 2009
Alan Gross was arrested and imprisoned in Cuba in late 2009 while working on a project for USAID to set up wireless Internet networks around the island. After a lengthy investigation, Gross was found guilty of crimes against the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Cuba for importing banned communications equipment to the country. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
This quintessential ShowTrial is somewhat unique in that Gross’ captors immediately and publicly revealed what they wanted in exchange for Gross’ release. From the beginning, Cuban officials suggested their interest in a reciprocal trade for convicted Cuban spies. All told, the case of Alan Gross is inseparable from that of the “Cuban Five”—five individuals arrested, tried, and convicted in Miami in 2001 for acting as intelligence agents on behalf of Cuba’s government. Over the years since Gross’ imprisonment, Cuban officials have overtly stated their desire to negotiate the release of Gross in exchange for the imprisoned Cuban agents.
Like many other ShowTrials, this case garnered high-profile media attention and the involvement of a multitude of powerful figures. Among the figures making appeals on behalf of Gross in this case were Jimmy Carter, Bill Richardson, and the Catholic Church. Commonly, the involvement of diplomatic figures at this level leads to release for the detained, but such has not been the same for Alan Gross. U.S. officials have rejected the idea of a prisoner swap, saying Gross did not engage in any intelligence-gathering in Cuba. With little U.S. Government effort to free Gross, his family resorted to their own strategies and tools in an attempt to find resolution. What leverage the family believed they has was the potential ability to embarrass the U.S. and implicate it for its role in knowingly violating Cuba’s sovereignty and putting U.S. Government contractors at risk. With little positive movement toward securing Gross’ release, the family hoped to find ways to pressure the U.S. to act. Gross was unjustly imprisoned in Cuba for 1,841 days were his health rapidly deteriorated.
Alan Gross is an American development specialist, imprisoned in Cuba. He began traveling to Cuba in 2009 to implement a communications infrastructure project for the USAID. He was convicted of “acts against the independence or territorial integrity of the state,” and sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Alan Gross spent the past twenty-five years as a development specialist. His work took him to over fifty countries and territories in the Middle East, Europe, and Africa.
In 2009 Development Alternatives Inc. (DAI) hired Gross to fulfill a contract with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Gross’ job required him to travel to Cuba and deliver information and communications technology such as satellite phones, computers, and other network devices to community members. According to a civil suit filed by the family, USAID did not inform Gross of the risks he was taking by accepting the project. They did not tell him Cuba is a “non-presence” country, meaning USAID does not have staff on the ground as in nearly every other country USAID programs are implemented. They did not tell him that Cuba would view his conduct as a covert U.S. government action. They did not tell him that his activities constituted espionage under Cuban law, nor did he have access to classified U.S. intelligence assessments pointing to his risk of imprisonment.
During his fifth trip to Cuba, the night before he was to return to the U.S, Cuban officials arrested Gross in his hotel. Gross was detained for fourteen months without being formally charged.
On March 4, 2011, after a two-day summary trial, Gross was convicted of “acts against the independence or territorial integrity of the state.” He was sentenced to fifteen years imprisonment. The Cuban Supreme Court upheld the original sentence and accused Gross of attempting to “destabilize” and “subverting” Cuba’s communist system. USAID, instead of assisting in his release, created a “Cuban Twitter” program shortly after his arrest, further endangering Gross’ situation.
“The United Nations described Gross’ imprisonment as a violation of human rights and called for his immediate release.”
Diplomatic envoys, including former President Carter and former U.N. ambassador and Presidential candidate Bill Richardson, and public requests for Gross’ unconditional release have also been unsuccessful. The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention found that both the trial and appellate courts did not act independently or impartially. The working group described Gross’ imprisonment as arbitrary and a violation of human rights and called for the immediate release of Gross. However, the working group’s recommendation was ignored. The high profile human rights attorney, Jared Genser, of Perseus Strategies, was quoted as saying “Having an independent and impartial group in the United Nations saying that he’s been held in violation of international law provides a very strong political and public relations tool to put pressure on the government of Cuba to resolve the case,”
“If we can trade five members of the Taliban to bring home one American soldier, surely we can figure out a path forward to bring home one American citizen from a Cuban prison,” —Judy Gross
Many Supporters of Gross believe the US should secure Gross’ humanitarian release in exchange for releasing the Cuban Five. The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has also called for their release and many experts claim the Cuban spies posed no threat to United States National Security. “If we can trade five members of the Taliban to bring home one American soldier, surely we can figure out a path forward to bring home one American citizen from a Cuban prison,” Judy Goss said after visiting Gross in prison.
The U.S. asked the last two popes to assist in the release of Gross, and most recently President Obama asked the president of Uruguay, Jose Mujica, to use any opportunity he has to convey a message urging Raul Castro to release Gross.
CURRENT STATUS / AFTERMATH
Since his conviction Gross spent four years in a Cuban prison with no hope of release in the near future. He spent twenty-three hours a day confined to a cell and lost over 100 pounds, battled with depression, and developed degenerative arthritis in his leg.
Beyond the physical effects of imprisonment there were the emotional effects from everyday missed opportunities with his family. Gross was unable to see his mother before she died of lung cancer, nor was he able to be there for his daughter as she battled breast cancer or when she married last summer.
Judy Gross campaigned for her husband’s release since he was first imprisoned. She visited Alan numerous times during his detainment and was able to talk to him every Friday for fifteen minutes. Judy has kept her husband’s story in the media over the years by providing countless interviews to news agencies. Judy Gross called on both the Cuban and U.S. governments to aid in the release of her husband. She wrote to Cuban President Raul Castro, asking him to release her husband and brought to his attention her husband’s wrongful imprisonment and Alan’s family and personal health problems. She also called U.S. President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry to do everything in their power to aid in the release of Alan Gross. In order to garner public awareness and support as well as to increase pressure on the U.S. government to increase efforts to gain the release of Alan, Judy organized numerous vigils in New York and Washington, D.C., in front of the Cuban Interest Section in D.C. and the White House.
On December 17, 2014, the Cuban government released Alan Gross on what government officials call “humanitarian grounds” and allowed him to return to the United States on a U.S. government plane.