“He’s working hard at keeping himself healthy and fit,” human rights advocate Sarah Stephens said.
Stephens led a delegation that visited Gross on June 9 at the Cuban military hospital where he is serving a 15-year sentence for crimes against the socialist government.
|Sarah Stephens. Photo: CDA|
“I think that it was important that we were granted a visit,” Stephens said in an interview. “It means something. It's not like he's about to be released, but I think we really have to take seriously the progress that can be made by non-official actors, people who care on both sides.”
If nothing else, such visits help “keep the conversation going” and address “Alan's desire not to be forgotten.”
Other members of the delegation included Jane Harman, a former Democratic lawmaker and now president of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars; Donna Brazile, a Democratic Party strategist; and David Dreyer, a CDA staffer and former Deputy White House Communications Director for President Bill Clinton.
Gross, 61, an international development worker based in Maryland, told the visitors he was anxious to be freed, but “he clearly hasn’t lost his sense of humor,” Dreyer said in an interview.
“He has a marvelous sense of humor. He said to Donna Brazile that he had a prediction that if Sarah Palin got the nomination (for Republican candidate for president), that it was likely that she would pick a superbly qualified person to be vice president. And Donna said - well, why do you say that? And he said – that’s because when Sarah Palin quits in the middle because she's gotten a better offer, she'll want to be sure that the country's in good hands.”
Dreyer said Gross also asked how the Washington Redskins were doing, and chatted with Brazile about seafood since “she’s from New Orleans and wanted to talk about seafood and all things related to it.”
“He reminisced about eating seafood at Clyde's restaurant in Washington with his wife and how much he enjoyed that.”
Gross expressed deep concern about his family. Both his mother and one of his daughters are battling cancer.
“He told the story about his mom, who was on the phone with him and said that she was losing faith. He had counseled her to write the word ‘faith’ on a piece of paper and to put it in her pocket so faith would always be with her.”
Asked about Gross was faring, Dreyer said, “He looked much better than I think I would look after five seconds in prison much less after 19 months, but his captivity has incurred an enormous toll on him and his family. He looked thin. He looked gaunt. He expressed to us his fervent desire to be released and to come home and to get back to the United States of America.”
“There were times in the conversation when he expressed sadness and anger. He talked about the toll that this captivity has had on his family. His mother and his daughter are quite ill. That preoccupies his mind.”
The interview took place in a sitting room that was opposite Gross’s cell. He wore street clothes, not a jail uniform.
“We discussed his health, his living conditions, how he spends his days, whether he gets news from the United States,” Dreyer said. “He talked about the visits that he's previously received from his wife; the monthly consular visits he gets from the U.S. Interests Section, and other visitors from the United States, including President Carter, Sen. (Carl) Levin and Congresswoman Barbara Lee. He talked about that.”
Cuban authorities allow Gross to speak with his wife, Judy, by phone once a week. In addition, she has visited him twice since his arrest.
Stephens said Gross, who was overweight when he was arrested, tries to stay healthy.
“He said he walks five miles every day before breakfast - and we're talking five miles in circles inside his cell. He considers himself to be quite buff.”
The visitors delivered a care package containing PowerBars and reading material, including People magazine and “Havana Nocturne: How the Mob Owned Cuba…and Then Lost It to the Revolution”, a 2008 book by T.J. English.
“That care package turned out to be well put together because when we asked him how he spends his days, he said he spends a lot of his time reading,” Dreyer said. “So bringing new material, even including People magazine, was probably the right thing to do.”
Members of the delegation asked to see Gross during a meeting with Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez.
“We didn't have to get permission from the U.S.,” Stephens said. “In the meeting with the foreign minister, I think it was (former) Congresswoman Jane Harman and Donna Brazile who made the request, and Bruno said – OK, I'll look into it. No promises. And then two days later, they came and said – yes. That's the way it went. The request was granted with no conditions, no restrictions. It was just granted.”
Dreyer said there were “two dimensions” to the visit.
“First, it was humanitarian. He's an American who's been in captivity since December of 2009. Whenever the Center for Democracy in the Americas has made a trip to Cuba since then, our delegations have asked about him, have asked to see him.
“On a previous trip, I bought him a book and a note signed by the rabbi that he and I share. On this trip, I brought a letter to him signed by the rabbi and every member of our congregation who was present at the Sabbath service before we left.”
A second reason for the visit, Dreyer said, was to call attention to efforts to free Gross.
“Obviously, a lot of the action that is transpiring between the two governments is happening above our pay grade. But if more information and more attention about his case can move things along on both sides, then we hope to contribute to that process.”
Rabbi David Shneyer of the Am Kolel congregation in Maryland provided the book, which was related to the Kabbala, which is defined as “a medieval and modern system of Jewish theosophy, mysticism, and thaumaturgy marked by belief in creation through emanation and a cipher method of interpreting Scripture.”
Asked about prison conditions for Gross, Stephens said,
“Better, much better now than it was in the beginning. He gets outside a little bit. He gets permission to go out into a little garden or something in the afternoon, sometimes in the evening.”
Dreyer said that doesn’t mean Gross wants to prolong his stay in jail.
“Things have gotten better for him, but he was clear with us and I’m sure he'd want us to be clear with you, that he's not comfortable there and he wants to come home.”
The delegation’s visit lasted a little more than two hours.
“It wasn't officially called to a close,” Stephens said. “It just sort of naturally ended.”