(Updated) EX-CUBAN PRISONER ALAN GROSS TELLS NATIONAL PRESS CLUB, NEXT WEEK’S OBAMA VISIT TIMELY AND COULD EXPAND OPEN COMMUNICATION: Bob Weiner and Ben Lasky report NPC Newsmaker
(Robert Weiner, event moderator, and Ben Lasky, onsite coordinator reported — UPDATED from 3/16)
Former Cuban political prisoner Alan Gross told a packed National Press Club Newsmaker Tuesday that the upcoming visit to the island by President Obama is “very timely” and has the potential to expand more open communication, including full internet access.
Gross asserted, “Information is food for the brain,” and would allow more global learning in order to improve product development – including poultry feed and improved agricultural land utilization. These are areas of potential Cuban economic growth. US businesses including “Maryland’s huge poultry feed industry” could benefit as well as the Cuban people. “Food security is a real issue for Cuba.”
“Even though Obama is going to a baseball game, Congress should step up to the plate,” Gross contended. “He should not meet with Fidel, who represents the past, human rights abuses, and crimes against humanity. Raul no longer represents those things. He and Obama are pragmatic.” Gross said the trip March 20 will help Obama “manage the risk of his legacy,” assuming he discusses “human rights and abuses of power, of which the Cuban government is grossly guilty.”
Gross spent five years in a Cuban prison from 2009-2014 and was introduced as Obama’s guest at the 2015 State of the Union a month after he was freed.
Gross said he worked as a subcontractor to DAI (Development Alternatives INC), a major USAID contractor, to establish broadband connectivity, and his imprisonment was “arbitrary.” He said the government had vans tracking radio transmissions all over the island. One turned up outside his working area. In addition, “the government maintains records of every incoming and outgoing email.”
During his imprisonment he lost 110 pounds, five teeth, and injured joints. He went on a nine day hunger strike to protest both governments’ dearth of leadership in finding a solution to his detention until his mother asked him to end the strike. For the duration of his five years, he survived on “knowledge of the part of his family that survived the Holocaust”, “daily exercise” and “humor”.
Gross said his release was due a “grass roots-to-the-top effort” led by his wife, Judy, and his lawyer, Scott Gilbert, with visits to him by former President Jimmy Carter and Rosalynn, and outreach by Representatives Chris Van Hollen and Barbara Lee, Senators Patrick Leahy and Jeff Flake, the Pope, Teamsters Union President Jimmy Hoffa Jr., and Jewish and Interfaith religious organizations. He said President Carter reported to him in a jail visit that Raul Castro said to him, “I know Alan’s not a spy.” He said all these interventions allowed Oval Office assistance, which culminated with a call from President Obama upon his release.
Open communication including land-based internet has not happened, according to Gross, because “the Cuban government has fear in its DNA.” The government’s internet connectivity is a far costlier satellite system. He said there has now been “progress” with “hot spots opening, it’s better.” However, he said it’s so “expensive” that most people can’t afford it.
He said Cuban economic problems are “not because of the embargo,” and blaming the embargo “is a lot of boloney. The real problem is low productivity without the prospect of advancement and financial reward.” He added, “Obama is bringing the hope of opportunity and the prospect of foreign direct investment in private industry. Now Congress needs to end the embargo in order for this to happen.”
He concluded, “Despite the sensory deprivation during my imprisonment…I’m not bitter. I’m a happy camper. I’m free. I can walk great distances in a straight line, instead of circling around a prison cell. I walk 4-6 miles a day.”
He added that he would return to the island in a heartbeat to help in any way if invited.
He reported that his legal action against the US Government was thrown out of court because of a foreign exclusion clause that enables the government to avoid liability. He believes this is an “incredibly unfair aspect of US law” and stated that he will work with the next Congress to correct it.