Alan Gross, the U.S. government subcontractor who spent five years in a Havana prison for providing the means for Cuban Jews to connect to the digital world, is in Miami to take part in a conference on how to expand the island's access to the internet.
“Access to information is a human right. The internet is a way to access information … The system they have there thwarted the development of Cubanos’ minds because they did not have access to information,” Gross told el Nuevo Herald.
Gross will participate in the Cuba Internet Freedom conference taking place Monday and Tuesday and organized by the U.S. government's Office of Cuba Broadcasting, which runs Radio-TV Martí. Government news media in Havana have painted the conference as focused on “the subversive use of the internet in Cuba.”
“The internet is not a subversive tool of the U.S. government,” Gross said. “Three billion people log on every day around the world … why can't the 11.3 million Cubans? Do you think 3 billion people are trying to subvert the government of Cuba? No.”
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Gross, who has worked in 54 countries on a broad range of U.S. government development projects, traveled to Cuba five times as a subcontractor for Development Alternatives Inc. (DAI), a company hired by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to provide independent satellite access to the internet to three Jewish groups on the island.
The Cuban government, which tries to tightly control access to the internet, block opposition web pages and censor critical information, arrested Gross in December of 2009. He was convicted of endangering the island's national sovereignty and was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
“What I did infuriated the government...but there are 11.3 million people living on the island who should be furious at the government for not giving them internet access,” Gross said after arriving in Miami Friday.
Gross has insisted since his arrest that he was not a spy: “Had I been a spy, I would have come home a lot sooner,” he said.
“I used no so-called discreet SIM cards in the activities I was involved in ,” he said, referring to news media reports that he had one of the devices when he was arrested. They are used to mask the signals of satellite phones and are generally restricted to military use.
A document published by the National Security Archives, a non-government organization, indicated Gross intended to use the special SIM cards if the DAI-USAID project grew beyond the Jewish communities in three Cuban cities.
He said the Cuban government knew he was not a spy because former President Jimmy Carter told him so during a visit. “President Carter said, 'Alan, Raúl Castro knows you're not a spy.' I asked, 'How do you know this?' He said, ‘He told me'.”
Carter told Gross that he then took a chance and asked the Cuban leader to let him take Gross but he refused saying that if he did, “They would run me out of town on a rail.”
Said Gross: “Does that sounds like somebody who is in control of a country?”
Born in New York, the 67-year-old Gross lost 110 lbs in the Cuban military hospital prison where he served part of his sentence. Visitors were allowed to bring him salami during his last year there, which he said was the only meat he ate in prison.
Despite the incarceration, Gross said he would “go back to Cuba in a heartbeat” because of its people, whom he complimented as generous and warm among other things.
Following his release in December of 2014, as part of negotiations tied to President Barack Obama's decision to restore U.S. diplomatic relations with Cuba, Gross surprised many when he endorsed the new policy of warming relations with the island.
“My position does not come from any alleged Stockholm syndrome. I’m not a big fan of my captors – and I don’t know how to say that in a nicer way,” he said. “But after some 50 years of a failed policy of the U.S., we could not get them to change. So why should we continue to do this? Let’s engage. Let’s do something different.
“Only Cubans can change their system. We can’t change that for them. But we don’t need to do anything to prevent them from changing,” Gross added. “I’ll put it very plainly: What do we want? We want the government of Cuba to get out of the way of the private sector.
“So if that’s what we want the government of Cuba to do, then the U.S. government should do the same thing: get rid of the embargo, allow private farmers, people who produce any export-quality product, to have a market in the United States,” he said.
Gross also highlighted some of the reforms that Cuba has adopted, such as easing some restrictions on the private sector, but cautioned that the island's government will likely continue to make statements that are hostile to the United States.
“They cannot let go of the past … but internet is now legal,” he said, adding that he believes there's a direct link between the changes adopted by Obama, such as lifting all limits on family trips and remittances, and the growth of the private sector on the island.
Cuba nevertheless needs to open its economic doors even wider, Gross added. “They need to come up to the 21st Century.”
Nearly two years after his release and return home – as part of negotiations that included the exchange of three Cuban spies held in U.S. prisons for Rolando Sarraf, a U.S. spy held in Cuban prisons – Gross said he is now more “generous” toward the Obama administration than his wife, Judy Gross.
“My family went through hell but let's be realistic. There were a few other items on the President’s plate beside this American being held in Cuba,” he said. “The President was dealing with Iran, Korea, Russia, ISIS, life or death issues. So yeah, I took a back seat...but the reality is they brought me home.”
He also defended the role of presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, who at the time of his arrest was Secretary of State.
“It was only the President who can make the final decision and she, I believe, began the government-to-government talks. For anyone to say she did not do what she could to get me out is simply wrong,” Gross said. “She did a lot, she met with my wife several times and we did not make any contributions to the Clinton Foundation.”
Gross emphasized that he never believed he would die in Cuba, “not for a minute. I knew I was going home” even though during his prison term he considered himself to be “a pawn of both governments.”
“Nothing is worth what I went through,” he added. “In the grand scheme of things … I became a catalyst in a process that I believe now is irreversible and is a positive process.”