MIAMI — A U.S. government subcontractor spent 25 days in a Havana jail before he received his first visit from a U.S. diplomat, but he'd already met with a Cuban lawyer involved in the case of five Havana spies whom Cuba wants freed from U.S. prisons, according to classified U.S. diplomatic cables.
The cables, written by U.S. diplomats in Havana, provide previously unknown details in the case of Alan P. Gross, whose imprisonment has become the most serious impediment to date for the Obama administration's declared desire to warm relations with Cuba.
In his first visit with diplomats, Gross reported that he'd lost 30 pounds during his 25 days in prison. He spoke only in vague terms about the semi-clandestine mission that landed him in the grips of Cuba's political police, the General Directorate of State Security.
The cables are among more than 250,000 U.S. diplomatic dispatches that WikiLeaks provided to McClatchy and other news organization.
Gross, 62 and a veteran international development specialist from Potomac, Md., was arrested Dec. 3, 2009, after smuggling a satellite telephone to Cuba's tiny Jewish community so it could independently access the Internet.
He was working for Development Associates International, a suburban Washington firm contracted by the U.S. Agency for International Development as part of a $20 million campaign to assist civil society on the island.
Cuba brands the USAID programs as subversive, and Gross is serving a 15-year sentence in a Havana military hospital on charges of violating its "independence and territorial integrity." His family and the U.S. government have urged Havana to free him as a humanitarian gesture because his wife, daughter and mother are all in ill health.
One dispatch sent just hours after the U.S. consul general in Havana at the time, Martha Melzow, first visited Gross for an hour Dec. 28 in Villa Marista, a detention center for investigations of political crimes, showed him concerned about his uncertain situation.
He reported suffering from high blood pressure, which he didn't have before his arrest, a duodenal ulcer and high levels of uric acid in his urine, the cable noted. Gross wanted to stop one of the five prescription drugs he was taking because "it was affecting his clear-headedness and balance."
Gross added "that he had fallen down and also fainted, and that he needed to stand up from a sitting position slowly," the dispatch added. "He had lost 30 pounds ... observed that he was given lettuce and fresh fruit to eat and joked that good health seemed to be a very important concept for the prison." Eleven months later, his wife reported that he had lost 90 pounds.
Cuban officials hadn't physically abused him and were treating him "with respect," though his interrogation had been "very intense at first," lasting an average of two hours a day, Gross told Melzow.
His cell had a TV and a fan, but he "expressed concern about having to share it with two other men," the cable noted, giving no further details.
Gross reported that the day of the consul general's visit was the first day "he had been allowed to use a belt and shoelaces," the cable added. Those restrictions apparently are part of Cuban prisons' precautions against suicide attempts.