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November 30, 2011

Wife of American Imprisoned in Cuba Presses for His Release

Two years ago this week, American contractor Alan Gross was arrested in Cuba on charges of bringing communications equipment into the country illegally.  Judy Gross says the U.S. government could be doing more to gain her husband's release, and she wants the United States and Cuba to "work something out."  

Since his arrest in December 2009, Alan Gross has been tried in a Cuban court, convicted of crimes against the communist state and sentenced to 15 years in prison.  In August, an appeal to Cuba's Supreme Court was denied, and U.S. officials such as former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson have been unable to secure his release.

Gross had been working for a private firm that says he was taking part in a U.S. government-financed program to strengthen civil society in Cuba.  The Havana government says he illegally distributed satellite equipment to dissident groups and that he is a spy, a charge the United States denies.  The company says he was working for the U.S. Agency for International Development's Cuba democracy program, bringing Internet access to Cuba's Jewish community.  

Gross's wife, Judy, says all he wanted to do was help the island's three main Jewish communities.

"What's weird is that he came in with cell phones and laptops and everything was checked out by Cuban customs.  He has receipts for the equipment, so then to say he was arrested for bringing in this equipment is ludicrous," she said.

Gross's family is seeking his release on humanitarian grounds, saying that his health has suffered and that his mother and daughter are suffering from cancer.

Judy Gross recently visited her husband at a Cuban prison.  She says he has lost weight, suffers from arthritis and gout, and that he is depressed and angry.

"I found him the worst I've seen him.  You have to know Alan.  He's this jovial, joking, gregarious kind of person that everybody gravitates to.  I couldn't get him to smile," she said.

Judy Gross says she wants President Barack Obama to intervene personally in her husband's case. "I don't know that much about diplomacy.  I don't see what would stop him from picking up the phone and trying to talk to [Cuban] President [Raul] Castro.  He might not get anywhere, but it would be a good effort," she said.

U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner says the United States raises Alan Gross's case with Cuba's government at every opportunity. "He's been held far too long and we call for his immediate release on humanitarian grounds, and we continue to make that point to Cuban authorities," he said.

Alan Gross's case has further strained relations between the United States and Cuba, which do not maintain formal diplomatic ties.  A decades-old U.S. embargo on Cuba remains in effect, and President Obama says it will stay in place until Havana takes steps toward democratic reforms.