Cuban authorities arrested Maryland resident Alan Gross on December 3, 2009. Convicted last year of "acts against the independence and territorial integrity of the state," Gross received a 15-year jail sentence. He allegedly violated Cuban laws by providing dissidents with high-technology communications equipment set to evade national controls. Gross' supporters, including the U. S. government, identify him as a humanitarian engaged in building communication networks among Jews in Cuba.
Before the arrest, Cuban President Raul Castro proposed that the United States liberate five Cuban anti-terrorists from 13 years of imprisonment in exchange for Cuba releasing prisoners. The five Cubans, Gerardo Hernandez, Fernando Gonzalez, Ramon Labinino, Antonio Guerrero, and Rene Gonzalez, are victims of a biased trial and cruel sentences. Because of the controversy, they have become known internationally as the Cuban Five.
Rejecting a prisoner exchange on December 31, a Washington Post editorial brought new visibility to that possibility. Echoing U.S. government views, it cites "the illegal espionage of the Cubans," their record of "infiltrating U.S. military installations in South Florida," and to "Mr. Gross's humanitarian work, on behalf of a company that operates with U.S. democracy-promotion funds, to support his fellow Jews on the island."
In fact, prosecutors admitted to the impossibility of proving espionage. Three of the five Cubans were convicted, instead, of conspiracy to commit espionage. Two others faced relatively minor charges. U.S. military and intelligence officials testified the accused dealt with private paramilitary groups and terrorists, not with U.S. documents, facilities, and personnel.
Convictions on conspiracy to commit espionage led to life sentences for three prisoners, that later were reduced for two of them. Charged also for conspiracy to commit murder in the 1996 deaths of Brothers to the Rescue flyers, Gerardo Hernandez is serving two life sentences.
Cuban security services had monitored Alan Gross beginning in 2004. Prosecutors charged him with providing Cuban Masonic lodges with communication equipment. He visited Cuba five times during 2009 using tourist visas. Writing in collaboration with Cuba expert Wayne Smith, journalist Salim Lamrani portrays Gross as a "long-distance communications technology expert, [with] great experience in the field. He has worked in more than 50 nations and set up satellite communications systems during the military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan to circumvent channels controlled by local authorities."
Alan Gross worked under a $600,000 contract with Maryland-based Developmental Alternatives Inc (DAI). In 2008, Congress awarded the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) $ 40 million over three years to "promote transition to democracy" in Cuba. Most ended up in DAI hands. In all, USAID provided DAI with $2.7 billion between 2000 and 2009, awarding another $382,491,550 in 2010. DAI works in Afghanistan under a $50 million grant and is active in 14 Latin American countries besides Cuba. By 2007, according to Venezuelanalysis.com, DAI had parceled out $11,575,509 among 360 "social organizations, political parties, communities and political projects" opposing President Hugo Chavez in Venezuela.
According to Lamrani, Gross' lawyer claimed, "His work in Cuba had nothing to do with politics; it was simply aimed at helping the small, peaceful, non-dissident Jewish community in the country." Yet Jewish groups in Cuba have "all the technological facilities needed to communicate with the rest of the world, thanks to the assistance of other international Jewish entities." Lamrani sees Cuban Jews and the Cuban government as mutually supportive. Cuban Jewish leaders have yet to reveal having had any contact with Gross.
Cuban Five prisoner Rene Gonzalez, released in 2011 and serving probation, responded to the Washington Post editorial. "Inaccuracies" relating to the Five he attributed to a U.S. media blackout. Gonzalez rejected charges that Internet access is blocked in Cuba. For him, "It strains credibility" that the Washington Post is blind to U. S. refusal to allow Cuba to use the underwater fiber optic cable running "parallel to the Cuban coast."
On its website, Cuba's Foreign Ministry posted a statement that, "The Cuban government has communicated to the U.S. government its willingness to find a humanitarian solution to the case of Mr. Alan Gross on a reciprocal humanitarian basis."
The Carter administration in 1979 freed four Puerto Rican nationalists imprisoned for an attack on the U. S. House of Representatives. Ten days later, Cuba released four jailed U.S. counter-revolutionaries. National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski had advised colleagues earlier that a "positive decision by the U.S. is likely to lead to a positive decision by Cuba to release U.S. citizens." Brzezinski rejected "a direct prisoner exchange [which] runs the risk of the public equating the crimes." Instead, a "unilateral gesture that is followed by a gesture from the other side softens the criticisms."
Indeed, 32 years later, the Washington Post based its rejection of an exchange on like reasoning: "There is no equivalence, moral or otherwise, between the illegal espionage of the Cubans and the conduct of Mr. Gross." But facts do show prisoners on both sides functioned as state agents. By Washington Post logic, they are eligible for a swap.