By CNN Foreign Affairs Correspondent Jill Dougherty
Judy Gross sits at her dining room table at her apartment in Washington, DC, typing away at her laptop. She’s checking messages from friends and supporters and, she says, after a full day working as a clinical social worker at a suburban hospital, she often ends up spending another three or four hours at the computer every evening.
Her husband of 41 years, Alan Gross, sits in a Cuban prison, convicted of trying to subvert the Cuban government – “Acts against the territorial integrity of the state” -sentenced in May to 15 years in prison. His appeal was rejected by a Cuban court in August.
“One of my biggest fears,” she tells me, “is I'm going to get a call from my attorney one day saying Alan had a heart attack or something happened to him. I don’t know if I'll ever see him again, I don’t know if he'll step foot on US soil.”
Alan Gross is a development expert who has worked in almost 50 countries around the world. He was visiting Cuba as a sub-contractor as part of a U.S. Agency for International Development’s Cuba Democracy program.
A USAID official, who spoke with CNN on background because of the diplomatic sensitivity of the issue, said Gross was carrying several laptops and BGANS, a terminal used to connect a laptop computer directly to a satellite for connection to the Internet.
The equipment is illegal in Cuba without government permission but a source close to the case tells CNN “at trial, the Defense presented a receipt from Cuban Customs to demonstrate the Cubans were both aware of and approved what Alan brought in.”
“The Cuban government did not charge Alan with bringing illegal equipment,” this source, who also cited the sensitivity of Gross’s case, said. “The charge and conviction were on Crimes Against the State, in other words, activity to undermine the sovereignty of Cuba, which is simply preposterous.”
Judy Gross last saw her husband in the Havana courtroom nearly six months ago.
She says he has gone from a vigorous 62-year-old to a gaunt, pale old man. “He's so frail, now he has lost over a hundred pounds and when I saw him I could see his bones sticking out.”
She reads to me from a copy of the statement her husband wrote by hand and then presented in court at his sentencing. "I respect the sovereignty of Cuba,” it says. “I have learned from my parents and through experience that respect is something that one must have, in order to receive."
“Is that what he sounds like?” I ask her. “Oh yeah. Very outgoing, very confident, very moral, very ethical.”
Mrs. Gross is appealing to Cuban president Raul Castro and to the Cuban government to release her husband on humanitarian grounds. She has been ill and their daughter has cancer.
Meanwhile, USAID says it has re-evaluated how it carries out its democracy programs, which it conducts in other countries and regions as well, including Burma, Zimbabwe, Belarus and the Balkans.
“We decided, after he got arrested, we’re not authorizing BGAN equipment in Cuba,” the official says. “But we are still continuing to reach out to people in Cuba and provide them uncensored internet information….We’re continuing to carry out the spirit of the work that Alan was there to do.”
The official denies such programs are aimed at “regime change.”
“These are not about regime-change,” the official says. “We're not there actively trying to topple the Castro government. People accuse USAID of having that kind of posture with these programs but that's just not the case. This is about creating civil society space, democratic space and consistent with what we do all over the world.”
“These are discreet programs, they are run in a discreet manner.” the official explains. They are not covert, not clandestine because that is not an intelligence operation. We don’t do intelligence.”
But what if such programs are viewed by the Cuban government as violating its laws, I ask?
“Cuban law is capricious and subject to the whims of those who are controlling it at that time. So we don’t use Cuban law as a guide to these kinds of efforts in that Cuban law also violates long-standing and international human rights protocols.”
The Cuban people, he insists, have the right to unfettered access to information. “These are people who just want to have access to the New York Times or CNN.com and they can’t because the regime says you can’t.”
Alan Gross’s imprisonment is affecting not only his family, it’s also affecting relations between the United States and Cuba which had, up until then, been generally improving.
The State Department tells CNN Gross’s case is a “major impediment” to that.