USAID Contractor, Four Years In Cuban Jail, Asks Obama For Help

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Robert Siegel talks with Peter Wallsten of The Washington Post about the story of Alan Gross, a USAID contractor held in a Cuban prison for the last four years. Gross had been working on a covert project installing internet in a Jewish community in Cuba.


Four years and one day, that's how long a 64-year-old former U.S. government contractor has spent imprisoned in Cuba. Alan Gross had been working as a subcontractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development, USAID. He'd been hired to distribute Internet equipment to Cuba's Jewish community. In 2011, a court in Cuba found him guilty of crimes against the Cuban state and Alan Gross was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

This week, in an open letter to President Obama, he wrote, with utmost respect, I fear that my government - the very government I was serving when I began this nightmare - has abandoned me.

Well, for more on this story, we're joined by Peter Wallsten of The Washington Post. Welcome to the program.

PETER WALLSTEN: Thanks for having me.

SIEGEL: What was Alan Gross working on when he was arrested?

WALLSTEN: He was in Cuba. This was his fifth trip, actually, as a subcontractor for the U.S. government, distributing communications equipment to the very tiny Jewish community in Cuba.

SIEGEL: In this rather lengthy open letter, Alan Gross described the situation of his imprisonment and also his dealings with his family and his inability to see them. Can you describe that, what he says, a bit?

WALLSTEN: Well, yeah. He's in a small room, about 10-foot by 12-foot room. He's with two other inmates who are also considered political prisoners. They apparently keep the lights on the full 24 hours, and they let him out into a small courtyard to walk around for about an hour a day. He actually addresses the president as a father. He refers to the president being a father in the letter. And Alan Gross also has daughters. His oldest daughter, in the time that Alan Gross has been in prison, suffered from breast cancer. She's also gotten married. His mother has terminal cancer.

So he has described the pain of missing out on these family struggles and important milestones. And he really hopes that that personal outreach to the president could have an effect or could get the president's attention.

SIEGEL: Secretary of State John Kerry, when he was asked about this, said in the case of Mr. Gross, we've had any number of initiatives and outreaches over the last several years and engagement with a number of different individuals who have traveled to Cuba, met with people individually there and elsewhere.

The way he tells it, they're trying. They're trying to get them out.

WALLSTEN: That's what the State Department has been saying. And I've been told by people familiar with some of those conversations that there perhaps is some interest within the State Department to do more, maybe negotiate, but that the White House is a little more reluctant. The administration has - they say they've raised it with other world leaders, with the pope. But they have shown no interest in direct negotiations with the Cuban government.

SIEGEL: I gather one of the wrinkles here is whether, in order to win the freedom of Alan Gross, the U.S. would have to agree to releasing Cubans who are in American prisons.

WALLSTEN: That's right. There's a group called the Cuban Five, now it's four, actually - one of them was released - Cubans who were convicted of spying on the U.S. The Cuban government has expressed, as recently as yesterday, their deep desire to negotiate with the U.S. over the release of this group. But the Obama administration has not wanted to do that.

SIEGEL: You mean a trade of that sort would be very much opposed by some Cuban-American groups.

WALLSTEN: Cuban-American groups that are still very influential in politics in south Florida. And as everyone knows, Florida remains politically important for both parties.

SIEGEL: Is it very unusual for USAID to have a project in Cuba? Is that typical of what USAID is doing?



WALLSTEN: ...there was a lawsuit, actually. Alan Gross's family sued the government and they sued the company that he was working with, the subcontractor. And in that lawsuit, the family alleged that Alan Gross was not well prepared for this work. He was going into Cuba doing very dangerous work. The explanation for the mission has not been clear. They say he was ill-prepared. He doesn't even speak Spanish. So there have been a lot of questions raised now about what USAID was thinking, and what the purpose was behind this particular mission.

SIEGEL: What was the resolution of the lawsuit with USAID, do you know?

WALLSTEN: There's two things, actually. The lawsuit against USAID was dismissed by a federal judge, but that's under appeal. And the company actually settled with the family.

SIEGEL: Peter Wallsten, thanks for talking with us.

WALLSTEN: You're welcome.

SIEGEL: Peter Wallsten is national politics correspondent for The Washington Post.

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