US contractor Alan Gross ‘may not survive’ Cuba jail term

0DBC65FD-A7C9-4DCC-BF00-124CF2E5BAA9_w640_r1_sBy Sarah Rainsford, BBC News, Havana

The lawyer of a US government contractor imprisoned in Cuba says he
doesn’t know how long he will survive in prison.

Alan Gross has served four years of a 15-year term for taking internet equipment to Cuba illegally.

According to his lawyer, Scott Gilbert, Mr Gross has bid farewell to his family and “withdrawn”.

Mr Gross’s imprisonment has stymied efforts to improve diplomatic ties between Cuba and the US.

“Alan is not in a good place,” Scott Gilbert told the BBC on a trip to see his client in Havana this week. “As he puts it, he is done with this situation. I don’t know how much longer he will survive in there.”

Mr Gross was arrested in December 2009 after importing illegal satellite communications equipment.

He had been working on a democracy-promotion programme funded by the US government agency, USAID, to spread unmonitored internet access. Communist-run Cuba believes the agency promotes regime-change.

Scott Gilbert told the BBC that he is ‘worried’ about the health of his client. He says the 65-year-old suffers from hip pain and can ‘barely see’ through one eye. He is now confined for 24 hours a day, unable to exercise because of his hips.

Extreme anger Alan Gross launched a hunger strike earlier this year, only calling it off after eight days when his mother intervened.

“Alan has extreme anger. He’s certainly angry at the Cuban government for what he believes is a […] very inappropriate and harsh sentence,” Scott Gilbert explained.

“He is [also] extremely angry with his government, which sent him to Cuba without adequate warnings and training – and since his incarceration, as far as we can see, has done virtually nothing to obtain his release.”

In the State Department’s latest comments on the case, spokeswoman Jen Psaki insisted his fate remains at the “forefront of discussions with the Cuban government”.

But such “discussion” remains limited since the US cut formal, diplomatic ties with Cuba after the 1959 revolution.

Cuba says it is ready to discuss the case of Alan Gross, which they link directly to the fate of the so-called “Cuban Five” intelligence agents, three of whom are still serving long prison sentences in the US.

The US government has ruled out linking the cases, arguing that Alan Gross was not a spy.

‘Covert operations’
It insists he was simply offering uncensored internet access to the Jewish community in a country where the internet remains tightly controlled.

But the situation has been further complicated by revelations that USAID continued funding secretive programmes to promote political change in Cuba even after Alan Gross was arrested.

An Associated Press news agency investigation revealed a “Cuban Twitter” service called ZunZuneo set-up by the US government agency to incite rebellion, as well as a programme sending young Latin American students to the island to do the same.

On Tuesday, Cuba’s foreign ministry denounced America’s “illegal and covert” operations, accusing Washington of “hostile” meddling.

“Alan said early on that he felt like a pawn” in the US-Cuba relationship, Scott Gilbert told the BBC.

“Sadly I think he’s not even a pawn. That’s a [chess] piece that moves, that gets played. It’s one that both sides care about, and deal with strategically,” he said.

Alan Gross has no further legal recourse in Cuba and appeals for his release on humanitarian grounds have gone unheeded.

All that remains is politics.

“I’m trying to maintain hope on Alan’s part that our two governments will get together to deal with these issues,” the lawyer said. “But it’s very difficult.”

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