The case of Alan P. Gross is very old news, but I'd missed it until last night, when I heard a funny report about it from veteran activist, author, and filmmaker Saul Landau on a KPFA radio show called La Raza Chronicles. [The segment begins about 9 minutes 18 seconds into the online archive.] Googling to learn more, I found not only several online posts by Landau (here and, with Nelson Valdes, here), but also a slew of articles in mainstream outlets (especially the Washington Post) and the Jewish press.
For others who may have missed the story, though, here's the gist: Gross is a 60-year-old "international development expert" employed by something called Development Alternatives Inc., a Beltway contractor to (allegedly) the U.S. Agency for International Development. He's been sitting in a Cuban jail since last December on suspicion of spying on behalf of American intelligence. He had entered Cuba five times on a tourist visit, but was actually engaged in delivering cell phones, laptops, and satellite phones (prohibited in Cuba) to "human rights and political activists" and families of dissidents. His psychotherapist wife Judy claimed to the Post that "her husband, a 'gadget geek,' had seemed unaware that he was courting danger when a Bethesda contractor signed him up to provide Internet access to civil-society groups on the island."
(How does a "tourist" manage to get so much gear into Cuba? I have no idea, even though I myself supposedly carried 128 typewriters with me when I traveled to the island on the Venceremos Brigade in 1969 - one of several imaginative tidbits I discovered, between page after page of redactions, when I got copies of my CIA file under the Freedom of Information Act back in the 1970s.)
Why bring up the Gross story here? Not just that one of Alan's first jobs was taking Jews from his hometown of Baltimore on trips to Israel, or that his résumé as a "development worker" included a stint "assisting Palestinian dairy farmers," or that Judy had a welcome-home Shabbat dinner on the stove when she learned that he had been arrested. (All this from a lengthy profile published in the Post in May.) The immediate connection is that his mission, in addition to "helping Cubans download music, access Wikipedia and read the Encyclopaedia Britannica, which was provided on flash drives," was to deliver communications gear specifically to members of the Jewish community of Havana, to help them "communicate among themselves and with Jews overseas," according to sources speaking to the Post "on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the case."
Landau poses some interesting questions about all this, questions he says the mainstream media has failed to ask: If the purpose of Gross's mission was to facilitate phone-calling, why didn't he just buy some Cuban-made cell phones with prepaid long-distance plans, instead of bringing satellite phones that - in addition to putting their users at risk of arrest - cost thousands of dollars? ("Do religious Jews believe God will talk to them only via satellite phone?," Landau asks.) Did the Jews of Havana actually need any of this stuff, since U.S. Jewish organizations already provide them plenty of modern communications gear? If Gross was actually involved with that community, which has only about 1,500 members, how come its leaders say they never met him? And if his claim is true, how is that USAID pays for such equipment for Jews, while the Department of Homeland Security seizes computers sent to other Cubans by (presumably non-Jewish) religious groups here? ("Did some U.S. government official choose Jews (the “chosen” people) to receive high-tech equipment?")
Meanwhile, at a reception last month for Hannah Rosenthal, the U.S. government's special envoy to "monitor and combat anti-Semitism," Hillary Clinton made a public appeal "to the active Jewish community here in our country" to join in efforts to get Gross released and returned. As Landau suggests, however, the U.S. government undoubtedly has it in its power to get him sprung, even without mobilizing the Jewish community: surely the Cuban authorities would be happy to swap "a Gross for a Five" - the five Cuban intelligence agents who have been sitting in U.S. prisons since 1998 for spying not on our government but on militant Cuban-American exile organizations.