Cuban leaders aren’t the only people mad at the U.S. for secretly creating a Twitter-like app aimed at fostering discontent with the country’s communist government.
Alan Gross, an American imprisoned in Cuba on spying charges, is also miffed.
Among the troubling facts revealed in the investigation is the fact the the USAID, the government agency that launched the plan, did so shortly after USAID’s own contractor Alan Gross was imprisoned on the island in 2009. Gross was charged with “undermining the integrity and independence” of Cuba, and sentenced to 15 years for helping the Cuban Jewish community illegally get access to the Internet.
In response to the AP’s report, Gross announced through his legal team on Tuesday that he had started a hunger strike last Thursday in order to object to the inaction by both governments for his release, and for “the lack of any reasonable or valid effort to resolve this shameful ordeal.”
Gross also made repeated calls for President Obama to “get personally involved in this ending stand-off so that [he] can return home to [his] wife and daughters.”
USAID maintains the program was not covert, as stated in the AP article.
The plea by Gross echoes similar sentiments that Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) voiced in a congressional hearing on Tuesday, where he questioned Rajiv Shah, the head of the USAID, on the app, which was called Zunzuneo.
“As far as I can tell, the USAID and the Obama administration has all but forgotten about [Gross],” Leahy said. “[The administration says], ‘Well, if you only knew all the things we’re doing’— all I know is whatever they’re doing hasn’t accomplished one darn thing.”
Since being jailed, Gross’ family says that he has lost 110 pounds, and that he is in failing health. This photo released by his attorney in 2012 shows the staggering weight loss.
Gross also suffers from diabetes and arthritis. A prolonged hunger strike could seriously threaten his life.
In the case that he were to actually pass away during a hunger strike, the blow to the Obama administration should not be underestimated. Gross’ death would likely trigger national headlines, spark anger from both the left and the right about the way the administration has handled the case, and draw Benghazi-esque scrutiny to Obama’s handling of international relations.
The most straightforward approach that the administration could take in order to secure Gross’ release would be to offer a prisoner swap for the remaining three of a group called the “Cuban Five,” who remain in U.S. detention. The five were charged with conspiracy to commit espionage, as well as acting as agents of the Cuban government.
Cuban officials admitted that the five were intelligence agents, but said that they were sent to spy on the Cuban-American community in Miami after several terrorist bombings in Havana were allegedly masterminded by anti-communist militant, and ex-CIA operative Luis Posada Carriles. Among the attacks Carriles is implicated in was a 1976 bombing of a Cuban airliner that killed 78 people, though the U.S. refuses to extradite him to Venezuela — where the flight was headed — to face trial.
Carriles lives in Miami, where some exiled Cubans consider him a hero.
Considering this special context around the detention of the Cuban Five, offering to swap the three spies for Gross might be perfectly rational. In Cuba, the detention of the five is ubiquitous through state propaganda, and used as a point to rally anti-American sentiment. And a homecoming for Gross would bring cheers from many.
For context, our allies in Israel have literally released more than 1,000 suspected terrorists Palestinians for a single Israeli soldier.
When Senator Leahy went to Cuba early last year, he met with Cuban President Raul Castro about the detention of Gross. Castro’s regime has publicly stated that they would negotiate a release of Gross for the three remaining spies. Leahy and 65 other senators signed a letter late last year urging President Obama to “act expeditiously” and to “take whatever steps are in the national interest” to secure his release.
For their part, Cuban American Sens. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) sent their own letter to the president, urging him to continue the policy of demanding Gross’s “immediate and unconditional release.”
But without negotiations, Gross may continue to languish in a Cuban jail, with his health in serious jeopardy.
Read the letter Alan Gross wrote to President Obama in December of last year below:
Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.