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Wife of jailed U.S. contractor Alan Gross has renewed hope for his release

The wife of Alan Gross, the U.S. government subcontractor jailed in Havana for the past three years, says she hopes that the reelection of President Barack Obama will open the door to a White House effort to free her husband.

“To be honest, I am losing some hope. After three years, it’s only natural,” said Judy Gross. “But I guess I have some renewed hope, now that the elections are over, that the White House can get involved in getting Alan out of Cuba.

Gross’ detention in Havana since Dec. 3, 2009 has become the key roadblock in Obama administration hopes of improving relations with Havana on issues such as migration, drug smuggling and possible maritime oil spills.

But to Judy Gross her husband is a man unfairly imprisoned who should be freed as soon as possible to rejoining his family in Potomac, Md., and comfort his 90-year-old mother Evelyn, due to start a new round of chemotherapy for cancer soon.

“Alan’s mother says she doesn’t care about her health, that all she cares about is seeing Alan again,” Judy Gross said in a telephone interview with El Nuevo Herald. “And I just want him home as soon as possible.”

Alan Gross, 63, was sentenced to 15 years in prison for delivering satellite telephones to Cuban Jews, paid for by the U.S. Agency for International Development under a pro-democracy program outlawed by Havana as part of a bid to topple the communist system.

The phones allow access to the Internet and people abroad but bypass the government’s closely monitored telephone monopoly. Cuba says delivering them amounted to acts against its “independence or territorial integrity.”

Judy Gross said her husband first went to the island with a group of other Jews to learn about the tiny Jewish community and deliver medicines, food and other humanitarian assistance.

“He just fell in love with the community because he’s a humanitarian and a real people person,” she recalled. “So he wanted to go back and help them. They were so isolated, they even needed food.”

Gross said her husband now suffers from chronic pains and has a lump on his shoulder that Havana authorities insist is not malignant, even though a U.S. physician who has read some of the medical reports says they do not rule out a cancer.

“We don’t understand why Cuba doesn’t allow in a third-party medical person for an independent check, and that makes us suspicious that maybe there is something wrong that they are hiding,” she added.

During his three years detained in a Navy hospital, the six-foot Alan Gross dropped from almost 250 pounds to about 150 pounds, his wife said, “and that’s also frightening, because the Cubans say they give him three meals a day and I know he’s eating.”

“He now weighs less than I do,” she joked, adding that the couple speak by telephone about once a week.

Judy Gross conceded that in the first months of her husband’s detention she did not publicly criticize the Cuban government, hoping to avoid angering Havana and thereby perhaps prolonging Alan’s time in prison.

But she has been steadily turning up the volume on her demands, now often picketing outside the Cuban diplomatic mission in Washington and this fall hiring human rights lawyer Jared Genser to push Alan’s cause on the international stage.

Today, she says she first blames “the Cuban government for arresting him on trumped up charges, so he could be a pawn His arrest was ridiculous and his sentence absolutely uncalled for. They should have just thrown him out of the country.”

She also blames the USAID private contractor that hired Alan Gross to deliver the satellite phones, Development Associates Inc., (DAI) for failing to make him fully aware of the dangers he ran by going to Cuba on behalf of the U.S. government.

And she blames USAID for allowing him to go to Cuba on a mission that was clearly dangerous. She has filed lawsuits against DAI and the U.S. government for $60 million.

“USAID knew that it was not safe,” Judy Gross said. “Alan wanted to go to help the people there. But he would not have gone had he known it was this dangerous.”

Some of Alan Gross’s reports to his supervisors include references to the risks he was running in Cuba.

Havana has made several thinly veiled offers to free Gross in exchange for five Cuban spies convicted in a Miami trial in 1998. The Obama administration has just as often rejected the swap offers, saying the two cases are not at all similar.

One of the five is serving two life sentences on murder-conspiracy charges for helping Cuban warplanes shoot down two civilian airplanes in 1996, killing all four Miami men aboard. Three others are still in prison and the fifth completed his 13-year prison term last year and is now serving a three- year parole somewhere in the United States.

Asked if she favors a swap, Judy Gross said she knows that the situation with the Cuban spies is “complicated “ but doesn’t know much about what the Cuban spies are alleged to have done or the exact legal charges against them.

“I would favor anything that would get Alan home,” she said, but added that it is the U.S. government’s duty to open negotiations with Cuba for his release.

“To just say no, no negotiations, to me that’s irresponsible. You sit down and you negotiate,” she insisted. “To say no, that makes us feel, to be honest, that the U.S. government does not care that he’s in a prison in Cuba.”