I sympathize with the plight of Alan Gross, a USAID contractor unjustly sentenced to 15 years in a Cuban prison. Some reports have said he is, or was, waging a hunger strike to protest his confinement; other reports say he is “fasting.” I, too, was once a political prisoner in Cuba.
Gross has been quoted saying his jailers treat him inhumanely. Mistreatment of political captives is common in Cuba. During my 22 years in prison, I witnessed severe abuse, including the outright killing of fellow political prisoners, and was denied visits or letters for years.
Hunger strikes are serious matters. I have seen people lose their minds. I know of cases when people became invalids near the end of lengthy hunger strikes and cases when guards refused water to a dying prisoner.
When Bill Richardson, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and once governor of New Mexico, traveled to Cuba with hopes of gaining the release of Gross, he was not even permitted to see him. Upon leaving Cuba, Richardson described Gross as a “hostage” being held to obtain the release of convicted Cuban spies in American prisons.
Alan Gross, an American Jew, has been in prison for more than four years. He has lost more than 100 pounds. While he was charged with spying, the only allegation made against him was that he had given a laptop and a satellite telephone to a group of Cuban Jews. That wasn’t a known crime.
Only a regime afraid of its people denies them access to the Internet. Yet Havana continues to use Gross to extort from the Obama administration the release of convicted Cuban spies. There is no moral equivalency between the Castro brothers, who deny all human rights, and President Obama, who seeks to help people. It is disturbing that Gross’ lawyer, Scott Gilbert, seems to be trying to invent one.
Nothing that Gross says while under the control of Cuban intelligence should be accepted as fact. He is not free to express his opinions. One only needs to talk to a former American POWs in Vietnam to know and understand what happens to someone held in a cell for 23 hours a day for months or held with inmates who are likely to be cooperating with authorities to obtain a little more food and other “rewards.”
It is sad that Gilbert, is saying that a USAID program designed to overcome Cuba’s censorship has “put Gross’ life in greater jeopardy.” What Gilbert is saying, in effect, is: President Obama should accede to the Castros’ extortion. If previous American administrations had yielded to demands to halt their democracy programs, Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty would not have existed and Poland’s Solidarity movement would never have gained U.S. support.
While in prison, many Cuban political prisoners become critical of the United States and of the Cuban-American community because they are constantly fed misinformation by the regime.
When I was finally released to the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who went to Cuba and didn’t take Fidel Castro’s “No” for an answer, I discovered hundreds of people had been working to free us.
Upon arriving at Dulles International Airport, I was embraced by many Cuban exiles and by dedicated Amnesty International volunteers who had worked specifically on my case. Some time later, I was lucky to marry one of them.
Once Gross is free, he will learn about President Obama’s many efforts. He will learn about the many other appeals from world leaders and the work done on his behalf by human-rights organizations and American Jews.
It says a lot about this country’s ideals that when a Cuban spy serving his sentence in a halfway house sought permission to visit his ailing mother in Cuba, Washington said, “Yes.” When Alan Gross made a similar request, Raúl Castro said, “No.” I don’t have any doubt that, if the Cuban spy had not been permitted to go to Cuba, President Obama would have been blamed, as he is now being blamed for Raúl Castro’s decision not set Gross free.
In a few days, millions will be celebrating Mother’s Day. I hope that thousands of Americans — Jews and Gentiles — will send a Mother’s Day card addressed to Cuba’s President Raúl Castro, Havana, Cuba. Ask him to release Alan Gross to return home for good to the embrace of his mother.
Basilio Guzman is a former political prisoner who spent 22 years in a Cuban jail. He lives in Arlington, Va.