June 10, 2011
Peter Orsi, El Nuevo Herald
HAVANA -- Members of a visiting U.S. delegation met with a jailed U.S. contractor Thursday and reported that he has lost nearly 100 pounds in captivity but is otherwise doing well.
Democratic political strategist Donna Brazile, who was part of the delegation, said they talked for about two hours with Alan Gross in an air-conditioned room across from the cell he shares with two other prisoners at a military hospital. She said the meeting was apparently being monitored, but there were no Cuban officials in the room.
"He's in good spirits although he's clearly lost a lot of weight," Brazile said. "He wants to come home. He does not want us to forget him."
About 50 pounds overweight when he was taken into custody, Gross has lost 95 pounds by his own estimation, she said.
Gross, of Montgomery County, Maryland, was working on a USAID-funded democracy building program when he was arrested in December 2009. This March, he was sentenced to 15 years in prison after being convicted of bringing communications equipment into Cuba illegally. His lawyer is appealing.
Havana, which considers the millions of dollars spent on USAID-funded projects to be aimed at toppling the government, calls Gross a spy. U.S. officials say relations with Havana cannot improve while he remains in jail.
Brazile said at Havana's international airport before flying back to the United States on Thursday that Gross and his visitors had a "down-home" conversation about the Washington Redskins, U.S. politics and crab cake recipes. She said he was not bitter and had "a remarkable sense of humor."
"This has taken a huge toll on his family, his wife, his daughter, his mother, and I assured him that ... I will visit his family and also relate to them his condition," Brazile said.
Gross' daughter and elderly mother both have cancer, and State Department officials have expressed hope that Cuba might release him on humanitarian grounds.
David Dreyer, another member of the delegation who said he and Gross belong to the same Jewish congregation in Washington but had never met before, showed journalists a plastic wristband that Gross apparently fashioned while in custody.
"He pulled this bracelet out of his pocket which he had knitted together from the bottle caps of the bottled water that he drinks every day, and he said that he wanted us to bring this bracelet home so that he would not be forgotten," said Dreyer, who planned to address the congregation back home this weekend.
Gross has said he was working to improve Internet communications for Cuba's Jewish community, though Jewish leaders denied dealing with him.
"Some news about the States is coming through," Dreyer said. "We asked him about that, and the first thing he responded was, 'Anthony Weiner?'" referring to the U.S. congressman who admitted this week that he had sent lewd photos and text messages to women.
The delegation, which arrived Sunday, consisted of U.S. women leaders brought to Cuba by the Center for Democracy in the Americas, which works to improve U.S. relations with Cuba and other countries and is a critic of Washington's decades-old economic embargo against the island.
Former U.S. Rep. Jane Harman, a California Democrat who resigned in February and now heads the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, also was part of the group.