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Supporters of Alan Gross, on poster at left, last year marked his fourth year in a Cuban prison with a protest in Lafayette Park, across from the White House. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, File)
Supporters of Alan Gross, on poster at left, last year marked his fourth year in a Cuban prison with a protest in Lafayette Park, across from the White House. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, File)

As fifth anniversary nears, Gross still in Cuban prison

WASHINGTON — As the fifth anniversary of Maryland resident Alan Gross’ imprisonment in Cuba approaches, the state’s congressional delegation remains frustrated with the efforts being made to secure his release.

“I have a message for Mr. Castro down in Cuba, let Alan Gross go! Let him go today, let him go now,” said Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., in an email.

Maryland’s delegation has highlighted the issue over the past five years, from bringing congressional resolutions to the floor to directly speaking with Cuban President Raul Castro. But despite these efforts Gross is still in prison as his health deteriorates, and his case becomes more entangled in the larger U.S-Cuba debate.

The difficult nature of the Gross case was highlighted this month when Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., and Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., visited Cuba and met with Gross. They were unable to secure his release.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Kensington, who also visited Cuba last year and met with Castro, said he was putting pressure on the Obama administration to secure his release.

“Every day that he sits in prison in Havana is another day of injustice for Alan Gross and another day that Cuba is missing an important opportunity to begin to reshape its relations with the United States,” said Van Hollen in an emailed statement.

Gross, 65, has been in prison in Cuba since December 2009 after he went to the island nation as a subcontractor for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). He was sentenced to 15 years in prison for bringing computer equipment to Cuba illegally, part of a program to bring Internet connectivity to the country’s Jewish population.

In those five years, Gross has lost his mother, the vision in his right eye and 100 lbs., according to a letter to President Barack Obama signed by 300 rabbis earlier this year.

In November 2012, Gross and his wife Judy Gross, filed a lawsuit against the U.S. government and the contractor, Development Alternatives, based out of Bethesda. On Friday, a federal appeals court in Washington upheld the decision of the district court that the U.S. government was not liable since the incident took place outside the country, Reuters reported.

The case has brought attention to the debate over relations with Cuba, a country that is officially on the list of state sponsors of terrorism, and the strategies used to deal with it.

“The Alan Gross case is still the principle obstacle to any dramatic improvement,” in U.S.-Cuba relations, said William LeoGrande, a professor at American University and coauthor of “Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana.”

There was a gradual improvement in relations prior to the arrest of Gross, but soon after the incident in 2009 that improvement was brought to a standstill, LeoGrande said.

Since 2012 however, there have been lower level areas of mutual cooperation, such as an agreement in March among five countries on procedures to deal with oil spills.

Last week, the Associated Press reported that USAID is reviewing some of its work that is considered illegal in some countries, after a report exposed a “Cuban Twitter,” ZunZuneo, which was created to foster dissent in Cuba.

An important piece of U.S.- Cuba relations has been the half-century long embargo on Cuba.

“The embargo has accomplished nothing,” said Wayne Smith, director of the Cuba Project at the Center for International Policy, a Washington-based think tank.

Smith said when the embargo was first enforced there was a sense that Cuba’s economy would be destroyed in a few years. But five decades later, “Cuba is not only surviving, but doing relatively well,” said Smith, who once served as chief of mission at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana.

Last month, in a symbolic vote, the United Nations General Assembly voted against the U.S. embargo for the 23rd time, by a margin of 188 to 2. While the vote was largely symbolic, it does show the limited support the embargo has internationally.

“(The embargo’s) true purpose is to increase the persecution of our international financial transactions in the whole world and justify the blockade policy,” said Bruno Rodriguez, Cuba’s foreign minister, during the U.N. General Assembly this year.

There is some hope that the tide in U.S.-Cuba relations could be improving.

LeoGrande, from American University, said political circumstances are favorable for a debate on lifting of the five-decade long embargo.

With the Senate in the hands of Republicans, Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., would lose his place as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The son of Cuban immigrants, Menendez has been a vocal advocate for continuing the embargo. He is expected to be replaced as chairman by Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., who may take a different position on Cuba, LeoGrande said.

There have also been suggestions that the United States should consider a prisoner swap for Gross, similar to the one it carried out with the Taliban for U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl earlier this year.

Smith, from the Center for International Policy, said Gross is a part of the larger U.S-Cuba relationship, as are three remaining Cuban spies in federal prison, much to the chagrin of the Cuban government.

“I would really like to see Gross released…but I don’t expect the Cubans to release him without action on our part,” said Smith, giving voice to a common theory that a prisoner swap is an option for Gross’s release.

What needs to be done is to take a different approach to Cuba to help secure the release of Gross, Smith said.

There needs to be a “move towards a policy of engaging with Cuba,” not an agreement on every issue, but a dialogue, he said.

That engagement could come next year with the seventh Summit of the Americas taking place in Panama, “ a decision forming event,” which could give Obama a chance to clear his position on Cuba, LeoGrande said.

Despite the debate surrounding the initiatives taken by USAID, Maryland’s delegation continues to work for Gross’s release.

“Senator Cardin is disappointed that all efforts to release Mr. Gross, particularly on humanitarian grounds, have been rejected by the Cuban government,” said Sue Walitsky, Cardin’s national communications director, in an email.

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