WASHINGTON — Last month, Alan Gross celebrated his 65th birthday in a Cuban jail cell. The American aid worker, who is Jewish, has already served five of 15 years behind bars after Cuba accused him of being a US spy for setting up communications equipment for Havana’s Jewish community.
Hopes for an early release for Gross were momentarily raised this week when the US agreed to exchange five Taliban prisoners for captured Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.
But any hints that the US government was open to negotiating a similar exchange for Gross were quickly dashed when State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki was asked Monday if such a deal were possible.
“No,” she said.
“We look at each case differently,” said Psaki, stressing that Bergdahl’s case was an extraordinary measure to free a prisoner of war. The Pentagon has described the exchange as an expression of the bedrock principle that no soldier is left behind on the battlefield.
In Havana, a Cuban intelligence agent released from a US prison in February said the American position on Gross “makes no sense.”
“If they were willing to make this kind of exchange with the Taliban in Afghanistan, it makes no sense other than the lack of political will not to do the same with Havana to gain the release of the person jailed in Cuba,” said Fernando Gonzalez, who served 16 years in the US on charges of spying for Havana.
Gonzalez is one of the so-called “Cuban Five,” a group arrested for spying in the 1990s, three of whom are still serving sentences in US prisons for espionage, conspiracy to commit murder, and acting as agents of a foreign government. Havana has reportedly sent signals to the US that it will consider releasing Gross in exchange for the rest of the Cuban Five.
A spokesperson for the Gross family says they are not commenting on the Bergdahl case or anything related to it.
In May, two US lawmakers met Gross face-to-face in Cuba and said it’s time for the Obama administration to step up efforts to bring him home.
Congressman Sam Farr (D-CA) said Gross “feels very much that he’s a pawn. He’s been kidnapped in a sense.”
“I’ve frankly come back a little critical of our own administration who say they are working on it but, according to the Cubans, there isn’t much that they’re hearing,” he said.
Lawmakers want the White House to push harder. In November, a coalition of 66 senators signed a letter to President Obama calling for him to take whatever steps are in the national interest to free Gross.
Gross was arrested in 2009 after he was caught setting up hard-to-detect Internet networks for Cuba’s small Jewish community on a US government contract. Havana considers such programs to be an affront to its sovereignty.