Former political prisoner Alan Gross speaks about 5-year detainment in Cuba

Gross says Obama is 'doing the right thing' by traveling to Cuba


WASHINGTON – Former political prisoner Alan Gross spoke to the media Tuesday morning about what he endured during his five-year detainment in Cuba and touched on his thoughts of President Barack Obama's upcoming visit to the island.

"On Dec 3, 2009, the night before I was supposed to go home and have a nice dinner with my wife, I heard loud banging at my door -- at my hotel room door and that's when I was arrested," Gross said. "I ended up in detention, arbitrary detention according to the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention from the United Nations. I ended up spending five years there."

The American contractor was arrested in Cuba while working covertly in the communist-run country to set up Internet access.

"Essentially, I was contracted to develop a pilot project in three different communities in Cuba to establish broad band Internet connectivity. That's it," Gross said. "If it was part of a larger project, which it was, unfortunately for me, I was not privy to any details about the larger project."

Gross said he spent the first year in prison confined to his cell and rarely saw daylight.

"The first year I wrote a song called 'No tengo nada,' which means 'I have nothing,'" Gross said. "The reason I chose that title was because I absolutely had nothing there. I had no television, no newspapers, no books. I wasn't allowed to have paper and pen, so I couldn't write. I even had my dental floss confiscated. I had nothing for the first year. I was in the cell just about 24/7. I saw maybe 20 minutes of sunlight the first year."

"In the next years, 14 months after I was arrested, I was finally charged with a crime and I was put on trial," Gross said. "I was found guilty of being a threat to the integrity or independence of the state, which I thought was kind of strange because I didn't think that the state had any integrity. I was found guilty before the trial started and sentenced to 15 years in maximum security."

Gross was convicted of espionage by a Cuban court in 2011 and sentenced to 15 years for bringing telecommunication devices into Cuba while working as a subcontractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development. The Cuban government accused him of being party to a U.S.-led plot to overthrow the government.

"I did have a visit from the former president of the Dominican Republic, Leonel Fernandez, who told me that he came with a message from President Obama saying that this whole thing was not about me, and I said, 'Thank you very much. If it's not about me (then) why am I here?'" Gross said.

Gross said he was visited by elected officials, both Democrat and Republican, throughout his years in prison and was lucky to have visits from his wife.

"My wife was fortunate to be allowed to visit me on average about every seven months in those first four years and it increased toward the end," Gross said. "I was visited by numerous U.S. elected officials from both sides of Congress and both sides of the aisle."

Among those who visited Gross was former President Jimmy Carter, who he said attempted to persuade Cuban President Raul Castro to free the contractor.

"I was visited by former President Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn, and President Carter told me that the night before our visit he had met with President Raul Castro, who told him, 'Jimmy, I know that Alan is not a spy.' And President Carter said, 'Well Raul, I have my plane with me (so) why don't you let me take him home?' And President Castro said, 'If I do that Jimmy, they'll run me out of town on a rail.' I don't think that sounds like a person who has total control over his government," Gross said.

Gross was released from prison in December 2014.

He lost more than 100 pounds while in prison and lost most of the vision in his right eye.

Despite his arrest, Gross said he is happy to see that the island has made some progress with Internet connectivity in Cuba.

"When I was arrested, access to the Internet by Cubanos was illegal," Gross said. In June of 2013 it was made legal. When I was arrested, Internet cost $6 and hour. The price was reduced to $4.50 and now it's $2 an hour."

Gross also touched upon President Obama's upcoming trip to the island and said he "takes his hat off" to the president and believes he is "doing the right thing."

"I think Cuba will be a legacy item for the president and I think the president will rightly be discussing issues of human rights, at the very least abuses of power," Gross said. "I think the government of Cuba is pardon the expression, grossly guilty of abuses of power, as they have been the entire time of Cuba's independence. And just as the United States has been somewhat abusive in its behavior toward Cuba since Cuba's independence, I think it's time to make a break from the past and work on a new leaf."

Gross called Obama a "leader" and "courageous" for trying to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba, although many Americans feel differently.

"Normalization is not going to occur for many years, but all it took was a single step --  they say a journey of a thousand miles begins by the single step, and we've taken more than a single step," Gross said. "Not only in the United States, but in Cuba too. And to those members of Congress who said that Obama has been giving gifts to the Castro brothers, I would respond to that by saying the Castro brothers are totally irrelevant to Cuba's future."

Gross said he has no ill feelings toward Obama, and said while he believes the president might have been able to bring him home sooner, he recognizes that Obama had "other things on his plate" and  is just grateful that he did eventually bring him home.

When asked by a reporter whether he would return to Cuba, Gross said, "In a heartbeat. I would return to Cuba in a heartbeat and I would go back mainly so my wife and I could enjoy Cuba a little bit and I can introduce my wife to some of the people who I lived with for five years and their families, who are now my family." 

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