Alan Gross attributes his status as a public figure to those who followed his story on the news, especially those who signed petitions, wrote letters and granted interviews to keep his status as a prisoner in the public consciousness.
WASHINGTON — During his first year of freedom, Alan Gross has come to realize his imprisonment in Cuba and subsequent fame has little to do with him.
His imprisonment, he believes, was due largely to the political strain between the United States and Cuba. He attributes his status as a public figure to those who followed his story on the news, especially those who signed petitions, wrote letters and granted interviews to keep his status as a prisoner in the public consciousness.
When he stepped onto the tarmac at Andrews Air Force Base and into freedom on Dec. 17, 2014, he became “the return on [the] investment” of such advocates, Gross said during an interview in his Washington condominium.
“It never was about me,” he explained. “My life became surreal the night I became detained, and it still is today. I don’t quite understand the celebrity function.”
Gross, whose former job took him to 54 countries during 35 years, was working in Cuba for Development Alternatives Inc. of Bethesda, Md., which receives funding and contracts from the U.S. Agency for International Development, to get the Cuban people, in particular the Jewish community, connected to broadband.
When entering the island, “I did not disguise anything,” he said. “I did not smuggle anything in. They inspected everything I brought.”
What he brought was a way for the Cuban people to receive information. He personally chose to help the Jewish community, but made no secret of that to his employer.
“I didn’t go half-cocked on my own,” he said.
What shook his world apart was the fact that “it is illegal to distribute anything in Cuba that is funded in full or in part by the U.S. government. That’s why they detained me initially.”
That initial internment stretched through five years once the Cuban government realized it had a bargaining chip. He wants people to know that his detainment had nothing to do with anti-Semitism.
He was never physically tortured, but they often tried to scare him. “They threatened to hang me, pull out my fingernails,” he recalled. “They told me I would never see the light of day.”
He recalls one time when a jailer got in his face and asked, “‘Do you know how Saddam Hussein died?’ I responded with, ‘Probably the same way you are going to die.’ ”
But it never really got to him, because “most of what they said to me were lies. They lie about everything. I just automatically assumed nothing was true.”
During those years, he kept himself busy by walking around his cell, drawing “a couple thousand images” he is now thinking about converting into a coffee table book, and creating word puzzles.
He recalled an episode of the television show M*A*S*H in which Frank Burns, played by Larry Linville, teases Hawkeye Pierce, played by Alan Alda, who was confined to his tent, by
stepping in and out of the tent whenever he felt like it.
“I thought about that almost every day — the ability to step in and out,” explained Gross. “The freedom. That’s what I missed every day. Freedom is an incredible thing to lose.”
Once he was permitted reading materials, he was able to keep up on the news, although not in real time. Visitors brought newspapers and his family sent books and the Economist magazine.
He rarely received any fresh fruits and vegetables. He had chicken often. He ate carbohydrates in bulk — lots of rice, which he didn’t like, potatoes, yucca and malanga.
“I think I lost about 70 pounds the first year, and the next three years, [I lost] another 40 pounds,” he said. His last year, many of his visitors brought him salami, and he started to gain some of his weight back.
Due to his eating habits, Gross lost several front teeth, which he keeps in a small container in his office. “My two cell mates and I lost nine teeth,” he recalled.
His wife visited about every seven months. He saw one daughter, who lives in Oregon, only once, about six months before his release. His other daughter, who lives in Jerusalem, was never able to visit.
For the first three-and-a-half years, he was unaware people were working on his behalf. He only learned of the Jewish community’s weekly vigils during a visit from his wife and attorney. He continues to be amazed at how many people manned that vigil, wrote emails to government officials or supported his wife, Judy, during his imprisonment.
When he received phone privileges, he contacted Ron Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington. They didn’t know each other.
“I might have met him,” Gross said. But he was desperate, and Halber was willing to help.
Gross let it be known that he was in failing health, totally despondent and unwilling to see any visitors except his wife. He went on a nine-day hunger fast in April 2014, which alarmed the Cubans, Gross said, since they wanted him as a bargaining chip. “I wanted to turn the heat up. I was never despondent. I never wanted to take my life.”
In fact, quite the opposite. He “tried to keep, what you call it, a stiff upper lip,” said Gross. He spent his days talking to his two cell mates, walking around the cell he was kept in 23 hours a day.
Prior to his ordeal, Gross enjoyed spending time with the Cuban people, whose future gravely concerns him.
“There is a food security issue in Cuba,” Gross said. Before the Cuban revolution, the country produced 60 percent of the food it eats. Now, that percentage is down to 20.
“Surely the [American] embargo has hurt, but Cuba still trades with 80 countries,” he explained. “Its biggest trade partner is Venezuela, followed by the European Union and China.”
The Cuban Jewish community fares “a little better” than the general Cuban population. That is mostly due to the involvement of Jewish communal organizations in North and South America, Gross said. A rabbi from Chile visits regularly, and there are “at least seven synagogues throughout the area.”
When he first started going to Cuba, there were 1,700 Jews. Now there are between 1,000 and 1,200, he said. The largest synagogue is located in Vedado, a Havana suburb.
Since gaining his freedom one year ago, Gross, 66, said he has done a lot of “walking, thanking people and smoking Cuban cigars.” He has a two-layer deep box of Cuban cigars in his office and several empty boxes fill his shelves.
Still, he is grateful for those who cared about him all those years, and in particular, Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.). He was “the first elected official to contact Judy when I was first detained,” he said. “He provided her with hope and support and let her know that his efforts would not cease until I came home.”
He misses his work and believes there is much good he can still do, pointing to his efforts in Israel, Gaza City and the West Bank, where “we were developing a system where cargo could be transported safely, securely and profitably,” regardless of the political situation between Israelis and the Palestinians.
The walls and shelves of his home are decorated with the art of so many of the countries he has visited.
Pointing out where he bought much of the art, it’s clear Gross would like to return to the field. But the fear of imprisonment is there, he said, explaining that the fact that he wasn’t a spy actually worked to his disadvantage.
Governments are quicker to trade one spy for another.
“Five years,” he said. “No matter how you slice it, five years in isolation can be a very long time.”
Suzanne Pollak writes for the Washington Jewish Week, where this article first appeared.