Alan Gross is an American contractor who was employed by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). He was born in New York City on May 2, 1949 to a Jewish mother and father and enjoyed a traditional Jewish upbringing. He left New York to attend the University of Maryland, where he studied social work, and completed his masters in social work at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Following college he enjoyed a career as an international development worker serving in more than 50 countries in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa including Iraq and Afghanistan. He worked to establish satellite communications systems to provide the people with internet and other communication methods circumventing government controlled channels.
Alan is passionate about keeping people informed and providing them with optimal access to important information. In 2001 he founded the Joint Business Development Center. The New York Times reported that the Joint Business Development Center runs programs that support "Internet connectivity in locations where there [is] little or no access."
Alan Gross was working in Cuba for Development Alternatives, a subcontractor working with USAID on a $6 million program to provide internet and communications access to underserved communities. He visited Cuba on four separate occasions in five months on tourist visas during 2009, delivering computer and satellite equipment to Jewish communities and agencies. During his fourth trip to Cuba in late 2009 he was thoroughly searched at the airport and declared all of the items that he had brought. He arrived in Cuba for the fifth time that year in late November, and was arrested 11 days later, on December 3, 2009, at Havana Airport. At the time of his arrest he was carrying a high-tech chip that was intended to scramble location services and make it impossible to track the location of satellite phone transmissions within 250 miles of the source.
After his initial arrest he was held at Villa Marista prison and was permitted to call his wife on December 6th and again on December 23rd. Gross was jailed for 25 days before his first visit with a U.S. diplomat, during which he said that the Cuban authorities were treating him with respect and, although the initial interrogations were harsh, he was being treated fairly and provided with a television and a fan in his cell.
Shortly after his arrest, in January 2010, the President of the Cuban National Assembly Ricardo Alarcon claimed that Gross was "contracted to work for American intelligence services." The United States government and Alan Gross's attorneys denied these allegations.
Gross was officially charged in February 2011 with committing "acts against the independence and territorial integrity of the state," and was sentenced on March 12, 2011, to 15 years in prison. The Cuban News Agency reported that Alan Gross had been a party to a "subversive project of the U.S. government that aimed to destroy the Revolution through the use of communication systems out of the control of authorities." The ruling was appealed but the Supreme Court of Cuba upheld the ruling in August 2011.
Many organizations and individuals worked to secure his freedom. Weekly vigils were held outside of the White House, and President Obama was called upon on multiple occasions to do everything in his power to bring Alan Gross home. Alan's wife launched a website for news updates about the story, and frantically attempted to raise awareness about her husband's plight. Alan was visited by many diplomats and members of Congress during his time in prison, which allowed him to remain hopeful that his government had not forgotten about him and reassured him that efforts were underway to secure his release.
At the time of his arrest Alan weighed 254 pounds and was a middle aged man who sometimes walked with a cane because he had developed degenerative arthritis, which only got worse as he wasted away in prison. In a letter written by Alan, released in December 2014, he complained that some of his teeth had been falling out and that he had lost a considerable amount of weight. Gross refused medical and dental care on the grounds that he wished to be released immediately: nevertheless, Cuban doctors diagnosed a hematoma (a collection of blood that forms into a lump) on his right shoulder. A US radiologist hired by the Gross family disputed this diagnosis, and demanded Gross's immediate release on medical grounds.
On December 17 2015 the Cuban and US governments engaged in a prisoner exchange in which Alan Gross was traded in return for the "Cuban Five", Cuban intelligence officers who had been arrested in Miami in 1998 for conspiracy to commit espionage, among other things. Gross returned to the United States on a government plane where he spoke to President Obama on the phone. Upon landing he was greeted by his wife and daughter, as well as many Congressmen and other government officials. Alan and his wife were honored guests at the January 2015 State of the Union address, where they sat directly behind First Lady Michelle Obama. This prisoner exchange was part of the larger "Cuban Thaw" negotiated by the Administration to improve US-Cuba relations.
Sources: Congressional Record. IMMEDIATE AND UNCONDITIONAL RELEASE OF UNITED STATES CITIZEN ALAN PHILLIP GROSS. GPO.gov, December 5, 2012.
Paul Berger. "What Did Alan Gross Do In Cuba?" Forward, February 15, 2012.
Desmond Butler. "USAID Contractor Work in Cuba Detailed". Business Week, February 3, 2012.
Alan Gomez. "American Contractor Marks 5th Year in Cuban Prison". USA Today, December 3, 2014.
Jim Avila, Serena Marshall. "US and Cuba Working On Solution to Free American Alan Gross From Cuban Jail" ABC News, December 17, 2014