[by Shiela Steinman]
In just a couple of weeks, we will sit down to our Passover Seders and read that we were slaves in Egypt – prisoners, forced to do Pharoah’s bidding – and we will pray for the release of the enslaved and unjustly imprisoned wherever they may be.
As we keep those traditions this year, we need to keep Alan Gross, the cousin of Louisvillian Michael Gross, in our prayers. Alan Gross’ “Egypt” is Cuba, where he is being held prisoner with a 15-year sentence, imposed in 2011 when he was convicted of committing “acts to undermine the integrity and independence” of Cuba, which he denies.
Gross works has worked on international development projects providing humanitarian assistance worldwide for more than 40 years. In that capacity, he has traveled to many parts of the world. In Baluchistan, Pakistan, he helped develop a community outreach plan for a mining operation to help them identify business partners. In the West Bank and Gaza, he helped with a job creation effort, working with Palestinians and Israelis to facilitate trade. He also helped farmers in Azerbaijan, Bulgaria and the West Bank improve their yields.
In Cuba, Gross was working under a USAID grant to assist the Jewish community to establish an intranet and improve access to the Internet. When he entered the country, his bags were searched, he paid tax on the equipment he was carrying, and was permitted to enter the country.
He was arrested on December 3, 2009, as he was leaving the country, and was held for 14 months without charge. Charges were lodged in February 2011, and he was convicted a month later following a two-day trial.
Since his arrest, the now 62-year-old Gross has been held in a maximum-security military hospital, and his health has deteriorated significantly and he has lost approximately 100 pounds. His family reports that he is suffering from a number of serious health issues.
In addition, while he has been detained, his daughter was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a double mastectomy; his wife, Judy, underwent surgery; and in February 2011, his mother was diagnosed with inoperable cancer. They have lost their home and Judy now lives on her income as a social worker in a small apartment in DC.
Appeals to President Raúl Castro to release Gross for health and humanitarian reasons, have been unheeded. Castro has stated publicly that Gross is not a spy and is being held as a hostage until the U.S. release five convicted Cuban spies.
Michael Gross says his cousin is being held as a political prisoner. “I have no idea if what he was doing was technically illegal or could be considered illegal under Cuban law,” Michael said, he believes Alan was only trying to “link the Jewish community to other resources outside the country.
His actions would be considered completely legal in any democracy throughout the world.
“Since then,” he explained, “there was an amnesty program, and Alan should have qualified for it based on his age and the state of his health, but he didn’t. The Cubans are trying to use him as negotiating chip,” he explained, “and its wrong.”
Michael said there has been “some discussion of trading five spies for Alan. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton has gotten involved and demanded his release. It is not politically feasible for the Obama administration to do a prisoner exchange for many reasons.”
On Wednesday, March 21, The New York Times published an editorial calling for Alan Gross’ release.
So, this Passover, as we recall our redemption from Egypt, Michael asks the community to remember Alan Gross is a prisoner – a hostage – in Cuba.
If you want to help free Alan, visit the website: http://www.jcouncil.org.