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What can we do to help Alan Gross?

Washington Jewish Week

Dec. 3 marked the second anniversary of the arrest of my friend, Alan Gross, a USAID subcontractor hired to connect Cuba's Jewish community to the Internet. Detained at the Havana airport on his way home, Alan was tried and sentenced in March 2011 to a 15-year sentence for violating laws forbidding the distribution of electronics and satellite telephone equipment, which are tightly controlled in that nation. His appeal was denied in August.

I have known Alan for more than 20 years; he is a superb and caring social worker and international development professional.

Today, Alan Gross remains in Havana - in poor health and having lost more than 100 pounds; he is concerned also about the well-being of a daughter and his mother, both of whom are battling cancer. While much has been done on his behalf, no effective efforts have been undertaken to secure his release on humanitarian grounds.

There has been a string of ineffective efforts directed at Cuban officials or through third parties. One such appeal came from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, in July 2010. This was followed by several notable trips to Cuba by Jimmy Carter; former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson; former Rep. Jane Harman, director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars; and Alan's rabbi, David Shneyer. Yet, Alan still waits.

Last month, at the JFNA's General Assembly, in Denver, Alan Gross' brave wife, Judy Gross, made an appeal to the thousands of delegates in attendance. She asked the delegates to contact their members of Congress and speak to their friends about his situation.

The response has been tepid, at best, though the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington (on whose board I sit) has organized weekly vigils in front of the Cuban Interests Section, in downtown Washington. Letters also have been sent to senior Cuban officials from leading Catholic and other religious figures, as well as from national Jewish organizations.

Up until Judy Gross' speech in Denver to mount a campaign for Alan's release, Judy and the family's attorney have done their very best pursuing Alan's release through private, behind-the-scenes channels. Judy's speech, though, signifies a new attempt to end this sad chapter in Alan's life.

Unfortunately, Alan Gross' case is inextricably wrapped up in Cuba's effort to release the so-called Cuban Five from U.S. prison. These Cuban nationals are serving four life sentences and 75 years, collectively, after being convicted in 2001 on charges of conspiracy to commit espionage, murder, and other illegal activities. Alan is a pawn in this high-stakes game, and neither the U.S. nor Cuba is willing to negotiate an exchange, a la Gilad Shalit.

Further, Alan's case is bound up in U.S. presidential politics, inasmuch as Barack Obama will not release any of the Cuban Five prior to next year's election so as not to harm any of his electoral prospects in Florida - a state he must win - among the large and politically active Cuban exile community.

Given these sets of circumstances, and echoing Judy Gross' call for advocacy and for congressional action, the following measures would pressure the Cuban government in the only place that really matters: its coffers. As a nation in desperate need of foreign currency, it is time for painful economic measures by against Cuba to bring Alan home.

First, there needs to be a reversal in the ever-increasing amount of remittances to Cubans. As noted on the U.S. State Department Web site, "academic sources estimate that remittances total from $800 million to $1.5 billion per year, with most coming from families in the United States." Earlier this year, the U.S. announced changes permitting unlimited annual remittances to family members in Cuba and to religious organizations, and up to $2,000 annually for nonfamily members to anyone on the island, an increase from the previous $1,200 limit.

Second, direct flights from U.S. airports - now numbering 15 - should be banned. This would mean a return to the status quo ante, when American travelers flew to Cuba from third countries. U.S. carriers are paying millions of dollars for landing rights in Havana, to say nothing of the hundreds of millions of dollars that American tourists are pumping into the government-controlled economy.

Another hard-hitting tactic is to threaten to expel all Cuban diplomats located on U.S. territory, including at the United Nations, until Alan Gross is freed. As we currently have no official diplomatic relations with Cuba, not much will change, and U.S. interests will continue to be handled by the Swiss government in Havana.

The Talmud exhorts us to undertake the great mitzvah of pidyon shvuyim, the redemption of prisoners, as captivity is viewed as even worse than starvation and death.

Our teachings are clear on this matter. We must do all we can to release Alan Gross from captivity. We must raise the ante so that Alan Gross' long wait will end speedily. If not, he will surely continue to wait, sick and lonely, for another 12 months or longer.

Ralph Grunewald, principal of GrunewaldSolutions LLC, lives in Potomac and is a long-time Jewish community professional and volunteer.

 

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