Alan Gross basks in applause at the State of the Union address./Getty Images
If you didn’t know anything about Alan Gross other than what you saw on television, you probably thought it was right for him to sit next to first lady Michelle Obama as guest of honor at this year’s State of the Union address. His presence marked the dramatic shifts taking place in U.S.-Cuba relations, shifts that Fidel Castro said Tuesday were good for both countries.
“We will always defend cooperation and friendship with all the people of the world, including with our political adversaries,” he wrote in a letter to a student group in Cuba.
In December, television news reporting told the story of Gross as a humanitarian unjustly jailed in 2009 by a repressive Communist regime for the crime of bringing Internet access to Cuba’s small Jewish community. His release from prison in December was part of President Obama’s plan to normalize diplomatic relations with Cuba after half a century of regime-change policy in the United States.
This TV news narrative had bipartisan support. In announcing his administration’s shift in Cuba policy, Obama said Gross “was arrested by Cuban authorities for simply helping ordinary Cubans.” Marco Rubio, the anti-communist Republican senator from Florida, said Gross was innocent of all charges against him and that he’d been “taken hostage” for “helping the Jewish community in Cuba have access to the internet.”
Neither was the case. He wasn’t “simply” helping ordinary Cubans. He wasn’t “taken hostage” and he wasn’t “innocent” of breaking Cuban law. I don’t mean to falsely equate Obama’s and Rubio’s statements. One points to the failed policies of the past while the other points to a more pragmatic, hopeful and unknowable future. But the facts behind Gross’s escapades have been largely known since at least 2012 thanks to the dogged reporting of the Associated Press’s Desmond Butler. At the time of his release, any cub reporter could have searched newspaper archives to learn more about Gross. That his presence at the State of the Union address did not raise an eyebrow in Washington, that he was recognized as a kind of hero in the fight for democracy and justice around the world, speaks volumes to the impotence of our national media and the lengths to which Obama is willing to go to end the still-lingering absurdities of the Cold War.
In 2009, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) paid Gross, through a third party, almost $600,000 to go to the island nation to install military-grade Internet equipment in Jewish synagogues that could not be detected by the government in Havana. Gross’s company specialized in installing computer electronics in remote areas and had worked in developing countries in Central Asia and Eastern Europe.
Yesterday’s State of the Union address was a success for Obama. From ending the war in Afghanistan and helping to revive the economy, the president touted his accomplishments. The same accomplishments his fellow party members were reluctant to use to their advantage in the last elections.
So many stood up and applauded as he mentioned the most controversial topics and spoke frankly about them. Global warming — it’s real. Women — they’re not second-class citizens. Racism and discrimination — not in our home. Biden was beaming behind him like a guardian angel and John Boehner looked like his face was about to melt off in a giant frown.
There were a lot of good things for Jews to fist-pump over in last night’s address. Overwhelmingly, we care about women, care about the environment and care about education. But here are four things that made it especially good for us:
Even France was reluctant to say the recent attacks targeted Jews. And in a world where some are reluctant to use the “A” word, Obama said it loud and clear: “As Americans, we respect human dignity, even when we’re threatened… It’s why we speak out against the deplorable anti-Semitism that has resurfaced in certain parts of the world.”
By just before 8 o’clock last night, my feet really began to hurt.
I was standing at attention, waiting for the President and his wife, wedged between four bearded Haredi men, a woman with very bare shoulders, and several people way taller than me who had their iPhone cameras at the ready and looked as if they had prior lives as paparazzi. Your typical Jewish crowd.
By that time in the evening, I had stood on line in the surprisingly chilly Washington evening to enter the White House, then stood as we ate, schmoozed, and ogled at the lush Christmas decorations, the historical paintings, the massive kosher buffet and the sheer amazingness of being here, in the central address of American power.
But I was wearing my good black heels and my feet hurt. It was cool enough to be at the Hanukkah reception. Did I really need to pay attention to the actual ceremonial part, too?
In a word, yes.
There was a special excitement about being in the White House on the day that Alan Gross was freed from a Cuban jail as part of a dramatic rethink of relations with our neighbor to the south. The President was eager to connect that story to the larger holiday theme, and a positive current buzzed through the air that was so welcome after a year of awful news.
President Barack Obama trumpeted the release of Alan Gross at the annual White House Hanukkah party.
The president said Gross had his strong family and the entire Jewish community to thank for his release after five hears in captivity in Cuba.
“He never gave up and we never gave up,” Obama told guests at the White House Wednesday evening.
I’ve been following the Alan Gross saga for the past two years now and have often felt alone. The story of the seemingly hapless technology expert who found himself jailed in Cuba for trying to help the miniscule Jewish community connect to the internet has never gotten much pickup among American Jews and has elicited only a handful of stories in the mainstream press.
I thought I wouldn’t hear more about Gross’s case until the day a deal was struck for his freedom — he was put on trial last March and sentenced to fifteen years in prison. And then an AP story came out this weekend providing more detail on what got Gross in hot water in the first place, based largely on his own reports of his five trips to Cuba in 2009.
The big revelation of the piece is the extent to which Gross knew he was engaged in, as he put it in one report, “very risky business.” He was bringing in a large number of sophisticated electronic devices like laptops, smartphones, hard drives and networking equipment in order to help set up uncensored wifi centers for Cuba’s Jews. And he was doing so in covert ways, including dividing up the equipment among his traveling companions, described in the article as unnamed “American Jewish humanitarian groups.”
In short, he was not the “trusting fool” he described himself to be in his trial, someone who was “duped” and “used.” The article strongly suggests that he was fully aware of the danger involved in what he was doing and took great risks to carry out his task, which still seems to have been the setting up of internet access for Cuban Jews — that part of the story has not changed.
How does this alter our understanding of the Gross case?
You’ve probably heard by now of Shane Bauer and Joshua Fattal, the American students imprisoned and abused in Iran for two years, virtually incommunicado, on flimsy espionage charges until they were finally “bailed out” (read: ransomed) by Oman and released last month.
You may also know about Alan Gross, the ailing American computer specialist arrested in Cuba in 2009 and sentenced to 15 years on sedition charges for helping to set up Internet access for the Cuban Jewish community. He too has had very limited access to the outside world — only four consular visits in two years — despite Cuba’s treaty obligations under the 1963 Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, which requires that imprisoned foreign nationals be allowed access to and assistance from their country’s diplomats.
Unfortunately, as NYU political scientist Louis Klarevas pointed out in a post this week on ForeignPolicy.com, it’s been hard for the United States to insist on its right to defend its citizens abroad, because we are one of the major violators of that very treaty. Our law enforcement authorities routinely ignore their obligation to inform prisoners of their consular rights, despite repeated protests — not just from Iran and Cuba but from Britain, Canada, the European Union, Germany, Mexico, and Paraguay. In fact, we lead the world in executing foreign nationals without allowing them access to their consular representatives. According Klarevas, a counter-terrorism expert,
out of at least 160 capital cases in which a foreign national was sentenced to death in the United States, only seven — less than 5 percent — were in full compliance with the VCCR’s requirements.
What’s more, Klarevas reports, citing the Washington-based Death Penalty Information Center,