After pursuing a career in international development, Alan Gross sought to combine the positive aspects of his experiences in global trade and social work to become an international economic and community engagement adviser.
That profession took him to more than 50 countries while he worked alongside private clients and government agencies, including the U.S. Agency for International Development, until Cuba arrested him in December 2009.
He was working on a humanitarian project seeking to increase wireless broadband Internet access for small communities, including the island nation’s Jewish population, but Cuban officials accused him of espionage for American intelligence services. Gross was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
The former Cuban prisoner spoke to the AJT before his appearance at the Marcus Jewish Community Center with Nelson DeMille, the author of the fictional thriller “The Cuban Affair,” on Tuesday, Sept. 26.
Gross was notified of his sentence 14 months after his arrest. “I thought Cuban officials were going to deport me, but when that didn’t happen, I figured ‘I’m in trouble’ and imagined the U.S. government would send the cavalry to help get me out,” Gross said. “However, two weeks later, when that didn’t happen, I figured I was going to be there for a while.”
Aside from what his wife told him during visits, he did not know what was going on for most of the first two years in prison. He had little knowledge about any initiatives from the U.S. government to help release him.
A month before he was released from the Villa Marista prison in December 2014, five years after his arrest, Gross heard his name and saw his face on television. “I had a feeling we were getting close, and two days before my release I had a conversation with my wife, when she said, ‘Alan, we’re never going to talk like this again.’ ”
Although hopeful, Gross said he also remained skeptical until he returned to his cell and discovered that his cellmate’s belongings had been cleared out. “That’s when I knew for sure there was a strong possibility I would be leaving the next day.”
Three Cubans were released from U.S prisons in exchange for Gross and another person categorized as a U.S. asset. Cuba said Gross was released for humanitarian reasons.
While in prison, Gross said, he often reflected on the members of his family who survived the Holocaust. “I thought about them every day and knew that my ordeal was not as severe as theirs, which gave me hope and allowed me to survive.”
After returning to the United States on the first day of Chanukah 5775 (2014), Gross delivered a speech that included “in the words of a DeMille character, it’s great to be home.” DeMille heard about it and mailed an autographed book to Gross.
The former prisoner of Cuba and the best-selling author will reunite for the Marcus JCC Page From the Book Festival event.
Their relationship is warmer than that between the United States and Castro-dominated Cuba, despite the diplomatic thaw during President Barack Obama’s administration. Rifts remain.
“We had no diplomatic relations with Cuba and very few opportunities for constructive engagement, so how can we expect anything to ever get resolved if there are no avenues for dialogue?” Gross said.
He said it is illegal to distribute anything within Cuba that is partially or entirely funded by the United States. If he knew in 2009 what he knows now, he never would have set foot inside Cuba, Gross said. “I never had an ounce of trouble anywhere in the world until I traveled to Cuba, yet my entire career was based on pursuing constructive avenues of engagement, whether it was through the government or the private sector.”
Numerous Jewish organizations assisted in Gross’ release, including the Jewish Community Relations Council of Washington and Federations around the country. Electronic petitions and weekly vigils outside the Cuban mission in Washington went on for years.
“I was very gratified when I learned of these endeavors,” Gross said. “I am indebted to the Jewish community because in reality there were so many people involved which I will never meet but am grateful to that helped tip the scales of my release within the Oval Office.”
Since his release, Gross has remained committed to providing economic development to countries across the globe. “Even though my career is over, my wife and I continue to volunteer with various organizations and provide financial support.”
Gross splits his time between Washington and Tel Aviv after making aliyah. He said he has a project he is developing, but he declined to provide details.
Who: Nelson DeMille and Alan Gross
What: Book talk and signing
Where: Marcus JCC, 5342 Tilly Mill Road, Dunwoody
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 26
Tickets: JCC members $10, others $15; www.atlantajcc.org/bookfestival or 678-812-4002