Supporters of Alan Gross, the 62-year-old aid worker jailed three years ago by Cuba for handing out Internet equipment, called Friday on the U.S. government to send a high-level envoy to Havana and seek release of the ailing humanitarian worker.
The Gross family is also suing both the U.S. Agency for International Development and its contractor DAI, which sent him to Cuba, charging they failed to properly train and prepare him for a mission they likely knew was high-risk and possibly violated Cuban laws.
Neither agency has paid his salary to his wife and family while he has been for three years sharing a small cell with two other prisoners in a Cuban military jail for handing out Internet hardware and software to the small Cuban Jewish community -- a USAID project aimed at moving the communist-ruled island nation toward democracy.
I asked Gross' wife Judy on Friday in Washington if USAID or DAI was continuing to pay his salary, and she told me: "no."
"He feels that the government sent him on a project, it didn't work, and that's the end of their responsibility. So he feels like a soldier left in the field to die."
His wife is seeking $60 million from USAID and DIA. She is also suing the insurance company that covers DAI but has refused to cover the loss of income for the Gross family these past three years. The family has sold its house in the Maryland suburbs of Washington and Judy has moved into a small apartment. She is working as a therapist to support herself and cover the cost of flying to Cuba to see her husband. He lost more than 100 pounds and has a lump growing on his back.
The Cuban government said last week that they had done a biopsy and found it was not cancerous. But the Gross family and their lawyer Jared Genser said the test was inconclusive and needs further testing.
It is hard to understand why the U.S. government, having sent Gross on the assignment to Cuba, would not continue to pay his salary now that he has been sentenced to 15 years in prison for carrying out the USAID assignment.
When I served on U.S. aid projects overseas in places such as Yemen, Egypt and Pakistan, I was certain that in case I should be kidnapped or arrested that the U.S. government would stand by me and my colleagues in the field. Failure to do so in the case of Gross sends a devastating signal to thousands of Americans working overseas on U.S.-funded assistance projects.
In fact when I searched the USAID website for evidence it has vigorously tried to help Gross get out of jail, I found only one bland paragraph inside a speech before Congress by the Latin America assistant administrator Mark Feierstein on March 29.
"The Administration is pursuing all appropriate diplomatic channels available to help free Alan Gross," he said, followed by some verbiage on supporting free access to the Internet.
The suit filed by the Gross family against USAID and DAI seeks $60 million for failure to properly train him and inform him how to carry out his mission without crossing Cuban government rules. Although he had worked on humanitarian aid projects in dozens of countries for many years as an aid worker, Gross did not speak Spanish and was unfamiliar with the nuances of Cuba's communist regime politics -- and it appears that politics is what is keeping him in jail.
The Cubans appear to want to trade him for five Cubans held in the United States for spying.
However, the fiercely anti-Castro Cuban-American community, which dominates Miami politics and can tip the scales in Florida and national elections as well, may be behind the refusal to consider a prisoner exchange which was the way to deal with such issues during the Cold War.
Genser highlighted the political importance of the Gross case. He said that when the hearing took place leading to a 15-year sentence for "actions against the independence or territorial integrity of the state," the prosecutor scarcely mention Gross or the Internet equipment. Instead he spoke for an hour about the history of the poisoned U.S.-Cuban relations during the administrations of a half-dozen U.S. presidents.
U.S. congressmen, rabbis, newspaper editors and others have called Gross a political hostage.
A visit to Raoul Castro and to Gross by former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson -- who had obtained the release of several imprisoned Americans in the past from North Korea and Burma -- failed to get Gross out.
In February, Sens. Patrick Leahy and Richard Shelby visited Gross and met with Raoul Castro. Afterwards, Leahy told The Associated Press that Gross was not likely to be released any time soon.
Now lawyer Genser said the family is appealing to the Obama administration to send a high-level official to negotiate with the Cubans "and take whatever decisions needed to bring him home."
Leahy said Castro brought up the case of five Cubans jailed since 1998 in the United States but never explicitly linked Gross' fate to them. The Cuban Five are seen in Cuba as heroes who tried to prevent violent attacks on Cuba by the anti-Communist exiles in Florida.
Gross' mother and daughter are both fighting cancer and appealed to Castro to release him for humanitarian reasons. "Releasing him would send a signal that Cuba wants to improve bilateral relations" with the United States, Judy said.
She urged that the Obama administration send a high-level envoy to "have a discussion with the Cubans and do whatever is necessary to secure his release."
She said that when she met with her husband in September in his Cuban prison "he told me, 'I was sent here by the U.S. government and I was left here.'"
His lawyer Genser said that Cuba wants the U.S. embargo lifted and an increase in trade and travel but that the Gross case is holding up any talks towards those goals.