The Cases of Alan Gross and the Cuban Five

By Salim Lamrani, with contributions from Wayne Smith

The way may be opening for increased U.S.-Cuban ties. The United States has removed all restrictions on Cuban-American travel from the U.S. to Cuba and all limitations on Cuban-American remittances to families on the island. Coming at a time when the Cuban government is encouraging the establishment of small private enterprises, this opens the way for importantly increased ties between the two communities-as one observer put it: “for an inflow of capital from the U.S. to Cuba.”

There is, however, the proverbial “fly in the ointment” and that is the case of Alan Gross, arrested on December 3 of 2009 and since then representing a major obstacle to improved relations–along with the case of the Cuban Five on the other side (but more on that later).

Who is Alan Gross?

Alan Gross is a 61 year-old Jewish U.S. citizen from Potomac, Maryland who is an employee of Development Alternatives, Inc. (DAI), a subcontractor of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) which itself is a dependency of the State Department. In December 2009, when Gross was about to leave Cuba with a simple tourist visa–after his fifth visit that year–Cuban state security authorities detained him at the International Airport in Havana. An investigation discovered links between him and the internal opposition to the Cuban government. Gross had been distributing among the opposition portable computers and satellite telephones as part of the State Department program for “promoting democracy in Cuba.” [1]

A long-distance communications technology expert, Gross has great experience in the field. He has worked in more than 50 nations and set up satellite communications systems during the military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan to circumvent channels controlled by local authorities. [2]

Possession of a satellite phone is strictly forbidden in Cuba for national security reasons and telecommunications are a state monopoly with competition forbidden. [3]

Aid for the Cuban Jewish Community?

The State Department, demanding the release of the detainee declared, “Gross works for international development and traveled to Cuba to assist the members of the Jewish community in Havana to connect with other Jewish communities in the world.” According to Washington, Gross’ activities were legitimate and did not violate Cuban legislation.[4]

In October 2010, during the annual session of the UN General Assembly, Arturo Valenzuela, then assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, met with Bruno Rodríguez, Cuban minister for foreign affairs, to discuss Gross. This was the most important diplomatic meeting between representatives from both nations since the beginning of Obama’s era. [5]

Alan Gross’ family also said that his frequent trips to the island were to allow the Jewish community in Havana to gain access to the Internet and to communicate with Jews all over the world.[6] His lawyer, Peter J. Kahn, endorsed their words, “His work in Cuba had nothing to do with politics; it was simply aimed at helping the small, peaceful, non-dissident Jewish community in the country. [7]

Gross doubtless had contact with some members of the Jewish community in Cuba. Leaders of the Jewish community in Havana, however, contradict the official U.S. version of his relationship. In fact, leaders of the community affirm they did not know Alan Gross, and had never met with him despite his five visits to Cuba in 2009. Adela Dworin, president of the Beth Shalom Temple, rejected Washington’s statements. “It’s lamentable […]. The saddest part is that they tried to involve the Jewish community in Cuba which has nothing to do with this.”

Mayra Levy, speaker of the Sephardic Hebraic Center, declared she didn’t know who Gross was and added he had never been to her institution. The Associated Press said “the leaders of the Jewish community in Cuba denied the American contractor Alan Gross […] had collaborated with them.” [8] In like manner, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported that “the main Jewish groups in Cuba had denied having any contracts with Alan Gross or any knowledge of his project.” [9]

Reverend Oden Mariachal, secretary of the Consejo de Iglesias de Cuba (CIC) [Cuban Council of Churches] which includes the [non-Catholic] Christian religious institutions and the Jewish community in Cuba, confirmed this position at a meeting with Peter Brennan, State Department coordinator for Cuban Affairs. On the occasion of the General Assembly of Churches of Christ in the U.S., held in Washington in 2010, the religious leader rejected Gross’ allegations. “What we made clear is what the Cuban Jewish Community, a member of the Cuban Council of Churches, told us, ‘We never had a relationship with that gentleman; he never brought us any equipment.’ They denied any kind of relationship with Alan Gross.”[10]

In fact, the small Cuban Jewish community, far from isolated, is perfectly integrated in society and has excellent relations with the political authorities in the Island. Fidel Castro, although very critical of Israeli policy in the occupied territories, declared to American journalist Jeffrey Goldberg that in history “no one has been as slandered as the Jews. They were exiled from their land, persecuted and mistreated everywhere in the world. The Jews had a more difficult existence than ours. Nothing can compare to the Holocaust,” he said. [11]

Cuban President Raúl Castro attended the religious ceremony for Hanukkah-the Festival of Lights–at the Shalom Synagogue in Havana, in December 2010. The visit was broadcast live on Cuban TV and published in the front page of newspaper Granma. He took the opportunity to greet “the Cuban Jewish community and the fabulous history of the Hebrew people.” [12]

Moreover, the Cuban Jewish community has all the technological facilities needed to communicate with the rest of the world, thanks to the assistance of other international Jewish entities such as the B’nai Brith and the Cuban Jewish Relief Project, the Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC), the World ORT, the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) or the United Jewish Committee (UJC); all of it endorsed by the Cuban authorities. [13]

Arturo López-Levy, B’nai Brith secretary for the Cuban Jewish community between 1999 and 2001, and today a professor at Denver University, is also skeptical about the U.S. version of the Gross case. On the subject, he stated, “Gross was not arrested for being Jewish or for his alleged activities of technological aid to the Cuban Jewish community which already had an informatics lab, electronic mail and Internet access before he got to Havana. [The Jews in Cuba] do not gather at a synagogue to conspire with the political opposition because this would jeopardize their cooperation with the government which is needed for their activities: the emigration to Israel program, the Right by Birth project–through which young Cuban Jews travel to Israel every year–or to deal with humanitarian aid. To protect the most important they detach themselves as much as possible from the U.S. programs of political interference on Cuban internal affairs. Gross travelled to Cuba not to work with any Jewish organization but for USAID.” [14]

Wayne S. Smith, chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Cuba from 1979 to 1982 and director of Cuba Program of the Center for International Policy in Washington, said that “in other words, Gross was involved in a program whose intentions were clearly hostile to Cuba, because its objective is nothing less than regime change.” [15]

Illegal Activities According to Cuban Authorities

Cuban authorities suspected Gross of espionage and internal subversion activities. [16]Ricardo Alarcon, president of the Cuban Parliament, declared he had violated the country’s legislation. “He violated Cuban laws, national sovereignty, and committed crimes that in the U.S. are most severely punished.”[17]

Gross, a USAID employee was providing sophisticated communications equipment. The distribution and use of satellite phones is regulated in Cuba and it is forbidden to import them without authorization. On the other hand, Article 11 of Cuban Law 88 reads that, “He who, in order to perform the acts described in this Law, directly or through a third party, receives, distributes or takes part in the distribution of financial means, material or of other kind, from the Government of the United States of America, its agencies, dependencies, representatives, officials, or from private entities is liable to prison terms from 3 to 8 years.” [18]

This severity is not unique to Cuban legislation. U.S. law prescribes similar penalties for this type of crime. The Foreign Agents Registration Act prescribes that any un-registered agent “who requests, collects, supplies or spends contributions, loans, money or any valuable object in his own interest” may be liable to a sentence of five years in prison and a fine of 10,000 dollars. [19]

French legislation also punishes this type of action. According to Article 411-8 of the Penal Code, “the act of exercising on behalf of a foreign power, a foreign company or organization or company or organization under the control of a foreign agent, any act aimed at supplying devices, information, procedures, objects, documents, informatics data or files whose exploitation, spreading, or gathering can by nature attempt against the fundamental interests of the nation is punishable with ten years of imprisonment and a fine of 150,000 Euros.”[20]

On February 4, 2011, the prosecutor of the Republic of Cuba formally accused Alan Gross of “acts against the integrity and independence of the nation,” and demanded a jail sentence of 20 years. On March 12, 2011 Gross was finally sentenced to 15 years imprisonment after his trial.[21] The lawyer for the defense, Peter J. Kahn, expressed his regret that his client was “caught in the middle of a long political dispute between Cuba and the United States.”  [22]

The New York Times remembers that Gross “was arrested last December during a trip to Cuba as part of a semi-clandestine USAID program, a service of foreign aid of the State Department destined to undermine the Cuban Government,” The New York paper also indicated that “U.S. authorities have admitted that Mr. Gross entered Cuba without the appropriate visa and have said he distributed satellite telephones to religious groups. [23]

Since 1992 and the adoption of the Torricelli Act, the U.S. openly admits its objective towards Cuba is “regime change” and one of the pillars of this policy is to organize, finance and equip an internal opposition. [24]

USAID, which is in charge of the implementation of the plan, admits that, as part of this program, it finances the Cuban opposition. According to the Agency for the 2009 fiscal year the amount destined for aid to Cuban dissidents was of 15.62 million dollars. Since 1996 a total of 140 million dollars have been dedicated to the program aimed at overthrowing the Cuban government. “The largest part of this figure is for individuals inside Cuba. Our objective is to maximize the amount of the support that benefits the Cubans in the Island.”[25]

The government agency also stresses the following, “We have trained hundreds of journalists in a ten year period and their work is seen in mainstream international media.” Formed and paid by the U.S., they represent, above all, the interests of Washington whose objective is a “regime change” on the island. [26]

From a juridical point of view, this reality in fact places the dissidents who accept the emoluments offered by USAID in the position of being agents at the service of a foreign power, which constitutes a serious violation of the Cuban Penal Code. The agency is aware of this reality and simply reminds all that “nobody is obliged to accept or be part of the programs of the government of the United States.” [27]

Judy Gross, the wife of Alan Gross, was authorized to visit him in prison for the first time in July 2010. [28]She took the occasion to send a letter to Cuban President Raúl Castro in which she expressed her repentance and apologized for the acts of her husband. “I understand today the Cuban Government does not appreciate the type of work Alan was doing in Cuba. His intention was never to hurt your government.” [29]

Judy Gross also accuses the State Department of not having explained to her husband that his activities were illegal in Cuba. If Alan had known that something would happen to him in Cuba, he would not have done that. I think he was not clearly informed about the risks.” [30]

A Way Out?

Clearly, Alan Gross violated the law. Of that there can be no doubt. On the other hand, he seems to have done little harm. His continued incarceration results in no important benefits to the U.S. His release, on the other hand, could be a major step toward improved U.S.-Cuban relations, especially if in the process he were prepared to apologize for his actions.

There is another side to the matter, however, and that has to do with the so-called Cuban Five. Just as the U.S. seems unwilling to move ahead in relations unless there is some movement in the Gross case, so do the Cubans seem reluctant to move without progress in the case of the Cuban Five, who were incarcerated in 1998. They were sent up to the U.S. by the Cuban government to penetrate and develop information about the anti-Castro terrorists groups in Florida after a sequence of bomb attacks against tourist centers in Havana. The idea was then to provide that information to the FBI so that it could take action to halt the exile terrorists. A meeting between representatives of the FBI and the Cubans was held in Havana over several days in June of 1998 and some forty folders of evidence were turned over to the FBI. The Cubans then waited for the U.S. to take action against the terrorists. But none was taken; rather, shortly thereafter, the FBI began arresting the Cuban five. In other words, they arrested those who had provided the evidence rather than the terrorists themselves. The Five were arrested, tried and convicted, though “tried” is not the right word for the trial was a sham. The prosecutors had no real evidence and so fell back on the old standby of trying them for “conspiracy” to commit illegal acts. No evidence, and they were tried in Miami where anti-Castro sentiment had reached such a level with the Elian Gonzalez case that there was no chance of empanelling an impartial jury. Defense lawyers requested a change of venue, but, incredibly, it was denied.

Worst of all was the case of Gerardo Hernandez, who was accused of “conspiracy” to commit murder and given two consecutive life sentences plus fifteen years–this in connection with the shoot down of the two Brothers to the Rescue planes in February of 1996. Never mind that there was no evidence that he was in any way responsible. But there, behind bars, he remains today, mostly in solitary confinement and after all these years not allowed a single visit from his wife.

The injustice in these cases contradicts the reputation of the U.S. for dedication to the rule of law. It must be corrected. Holding these men year after year without real evidence of any crime other than being the unregistered agents of a foreign power was one thing during the Cold War–though unjustified even then. But now, with the Cold War over and every possibility of beginning a new U.S.-Cuba relationship, it becomes morally unjustifiable and counterproductive. It is time surely to undertake a process of reviewing all these cases and then allowing these men to return to their families. One, René Gonzalez, has already been released from prison to serve out his remaining three years on parole, but at the same time, incredibly, not allowed to return to Cuba to be with his wife, who he has not seen in all these years. That, allowing his return, should perhaps be the first step in the process.

And it goes without saying that as the U.S. begins to move in the cases of the Cuban Five, Cuba should release Alan Gross to return to his family.

It should be noted that Alan Gross himself suggested there should be some reciprocal movement in these cases. “Following the recent exchange of the Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, for 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, Gross was clear that he wants the United States and Cuba to make a similar gesture for him and the Cuban Five,” explained Rabbi David Shneyer, who had visited Gross in Havana. [31]

Salim Lamrani, PhD in Iberian and Latin American Studies of the Paris Sorbonne-Paris IV University, is a professor in charge of courses at the Paris-Sorbonne-Paris IV University and the Paris-Est Marne-la- Vallée University. He is a French journalist, and specialist on the Cuba-United States relations. He has recently published: Etat de siege. Les sanctions economiques des Etats-Unis contre Cuba with a prologue by Wayne S. Smith.

 Wayne S. Smith, now director of the Cuba Project at the Center for International Policy, was chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, 1979-1982, and is the author of The Closest of Enemies, (New York: W.W. Norton, 1987).

End Notes


[1] Jeff Franks, <<Scenarios-U.S. Contractor Jailed in Cuba Still in Limbo>>, Reuter, October 24, 2010.

[2] Phillip J. Crowley, <<Statement on Anniversary of Alan Gross’ Incarceration in Cuba>>, op. cit.; Saul Landau, <<The Alan Gross Case>>, Counterpunch, July 30, 2010. http://www.counterpunch.org/landau07302010.html (site consulted on February 18, 2011).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Phillip J. Crowley, <<Statement on Anniversary of Alan Gross’ Incarceration in Cuba>>, op. cit

[5] Paul Haven, <<U.S., Cuban Diplos Met About Jailed U.S. Man>>, The Associated Press, October 18, 2010

[6] Anthony Broadle, <<Exclusive: American Held in Cuba Expresses Regret to Raul Castro>>, Reuters, October 24, 2010.

[7] Juan O. Tamayo, <<Pedirán 20 años de cárcel para Gross>>, El Nuevo Herald, February 5, 2011.

[8] Andrea Rodríguez, <<Judíos niegan haber colaborado con Alan Gross>>, The Associated Press, December 2, 2010.

[9] Jewish Telegraphic Agency, <<Cuba to Seek 20- Year Prison Term for Alan Gross>>, February 6, 2011.

[10] Andrea Rodrígues, <<EEUU pide Iglesias de Cuba interesarse por contratista preso>>, The Associated Press, December 2, 2010.

[11] Jeffrey Goldberg, <<Castro: ‘No One Has Been Slandered More Than the Jews’>> The Atlantic, December 7, 2010. http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2010/09/castro-no-one-has-been-slandered-more-than-tthe-jews/62566/ (site consulted on February 18, 2011).

[12] The Associated Press, <<Raúl Castro Celebrates Hanukkah With Cuban Jews>>; Juan O. Tamayo, <<Raul Castro asiste a fiesta de Janucá en sinagoga de La Habana>>, El Nuevo Herald, December 6, 2010.

[13] Comunidad Hebrea de Cuba, <<Quienes ayudan>>. http://www.chcuba.org/espanol/ayuda/quienes.htm (site consulted on February 18, 2011).

[14] Arturo López-Levy, <<Freeing Alan Gross: First Do No Harm>>, August 2010. http://www.thewashintonnote.com/archives/2010/08freeing_alan_gr/ (site consulted on February 18, 2011).

[15] Wayne S. Smith, <<The Gross Case and the Inanity of U.S. Policy>>, Center for International Policy, March 2011. http://ciponline.org/pressroom/articles/030411_Smith_Intelligence_Brief_Gross.htm (site consulted on March 13, 2011).

[16] Paul Haven, <<U.S. Officials Ask Cuba to Release Jailed American>>, The Associated Press, February 19, 2010.

[17] Andrea Rodriguez, <<Contratista de EEUU violó soberanía de Cuba, dice alto dirigente>>, The Associated Press, December 11, 2010.

[18] Ley de protección de la independencia nacional y la economía de Cuba (LEY N˚. 88), Artículo 11.

[19] U.S. Code, Title 22, Chapter 11, Subchapter II, § 611, iii <<Definitions>>, § 618, a, 1 <<Violations; false statements and willful omissions>>.

[20] Code Penal, Partie legislative, Livre, Titre Ier, Chapitre I, Section 3, Article 411-8.

[21] William Booth, <<Cuba Seeks 20 Year Jail term for Detained American>>, The Associated Press, February 4, 2011.

[22] Paul Haven <<Cuba Seeks 20-Year Jail term for Detained American>>, The Associated Press, February 4, 2011.

[23] Ginger Thompson, <<Wife of American Held in Cuba Pleads for His Release and Apologizes to Castro>>, The New York Times, October 24, 2010.

[24] Cuban Democracy Act, Titulo XVII, Artículo 1705, 1992.

[25] Along the Malecon, <<Exclusive: Q & A with USAID>>, October 25, 2010. http://alongthemalecon.blogspot.com/2010/10/exclusive-q-with-usaid.html (site consulted on October 26, 2010); Tracey Eaton, <<U.S. government aid to Cuba is the spotlight as contractor Alan Gross marks one year in a Cuban prison>>, El Nuevo Herald, December 3, 2010.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Jessica Gresko, <<U.S. Man Jailed in Cuba Can Call Home More Often>>, The Associated Press, October 26, 2010.

[29] Anthony Boadle, <<Exclusive: American Held in Cuba Expresses Regret to Raul Castro>>, op. cit. ; Jeff Frank, <<Factbox: Jailed U.S. Contractor, Sour U.S.-Cuba Relations>>, Reuters, October 24, 2010.

[30]Anthony Boadle, <<Exclusive: American Held in Cuba Expresses Regret to Raul Castro>>, op. cit EFE, <<EEUU no negocia liberación de Alan Gross>>,  February 8, 2011.

[31] Agence France Presse, <<Contratista de EE UU en Cuba sugiere intercambio de espias>> November 8, 2011.

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10 Responses to The Cases of Alan Gross and the Cuban Five

  1. Pingback: The Cases of Alan Gross and the Cuban Five « Realcuba's Blog

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  6. Sigrid Meinel says:

    I found this to be an excellent, clear and very fair explanation of both cases and i want to pass it on to many people who do not know about or do not understand all that happened. Thank you.

  7. Pingback: The Cases of Alan Gross and the Cuban Five | Netzwerk Kuba Österreich – Red Cuba Austria

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