– Judy Gross stood outside Cuba's diplomatic mission to the United States, microphone in hand, and described her family's Thanksgiving.
"There was once again an empty seat for Alan," she told sign-wielding supporters Monday in front of the Cuban Interests Section in Washington. "That huge void, the pain, and the anguish are worse this year, as no one thought that we would be celebrating another holiday without Alan."
"Free Alan Gross now!" supporter Les Ulanow shouted.
The demonstration reflected a new approach in the long campaign to win the release of the Maryland man, who was sentenced in March to 15 years in a Cuban prison for crimes against the state.
Gross, 62, who grew up in the Baltimore area and graduated from Milford Mill High School and the University of Maryland, had taken cellphones, laptop computers and satellite communications equipment to the communist nation. The international development veteran was working on a U.S. government program aimed at improving Internet access for ordinary Cubans.
President Barack Obama has called for his release, and former President Jimmy Carter and others have appealed directly to Cuban officials during visits to the island. The U.S. Agency for International Development says it is now managing its Cuba program differently.
But as efforts of U.S. officials so far have failed, family and friends now are taking Gross' case to the public.
On the eve of the second anniversary of his arrest, Judy Gross, his wife of 41 years, is giving interviews to news reporters. Washington-area Jewish leaders have launched a weekly vigil outside the Cuban mission. Rep. Chris Van Hollen and Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin are circulating letters in Congress, and lawmakers are planning to make floor statements this week.
"We really are pushing for people to know him," Judy Gross said. "For his case to be known, and for people in the country to know that he's sitting in that jail languishing away."
The effort, which she described as "the beginning of a bigger push, locally, nationally and internationally," has the support of U.S. officials.
"We have always taken our cue from the Gross family, and we'll continue to do that," Roberta S. Jacobson, the acting assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, told a Senate committee this month. "But we do think that it is time to speak out very loudly."
Van Hollen, Gross' congressman, said: "We have no recourse but to ratchet up the pressure."
"The question for the Cuban government is whether they want improved relations with the United States," the Maryland Democrat said. "So long as Alan Gross remains imprisoned there, that door is closed."
Officials with the Cuban Interests Section couldn't be reached to comment on Monday. The president of the Cuban parliament said this month that the island would not free Gross unilaterally.
Judy Gross sees a growing urgency to her husband's case. Since his arrest in February 2009, the older of their two adult daughters has undergone a double mastectomy for breast cancer, and his 89-year-old mother has been diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer.
Judy Gross also has had surgery. A psychotherapist at Suburban Hospital in Bethesda, she sold the family home in Potomac last year because, she says, she couldn't make the mortgage payments without her husband's earnings. She has moved to an apartment in Washington.
Cuban authorities have allowed some communication and visits. Judy Gross last spoke with her husband on Saturday.
"Never have I heard him more hopeless and depressed," she said. "His voice was fading away as he spoke. His spirit is almost broken."
Alan Gross has worked in more than 50 countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East, with a focus on economic development. Family and friends describe him as jovial and passionate about helping others.
When funding ended for a project to ease trade between the Palestinian territories and Israel, his supporters say, he continued working on it at his own expense. They quote one of his favorite sayings: "Where cargo goes, the economy flows."
In Cuba, Gross was trying to help Cuba's small Jewish community develop an intranet and improve access to the Internet. He was working as a subcontractor to USAID, which supports programs to promote democracy on the island.
He was arrested on his fifth visit. At the time, his family says, he was carrying only cellphones and laptop computers. On another occasion, they say, Cuban authorities had searched his bags and allowed him to enter the country with the equipment he was carrying.
Supporters say Gross was unaware of the risk he was running. During his trial, he called himself "a trusting fool" and said he was "duped" but didn't elaborate.
Cuba analyst Phil Peters, vice president of the Lexington Institute, called the arrest "sad" but not surprising.
"They're still in the Castro administration down there," Peters said. "They tend to tie these programs together with a long series of programs the U.S. government has undertaken to try to change the political order there. Which is exactly what they are."
But he added: "I don't believe the Cuban government has an interest in keeping him in jail for 15 years."
Jaime Suchlicki, the director of the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami, says Cuba's intent is clear: to put an end to USAID's Cuba program, and to negotiate an exchange for one or more of the so-called Cuban Five intelligence operatives convicted in federal court of spying on the United States and other charges.
"It was not because he was distributing anything or doing anything so horrible, because there are other people doing it," Suchlicki said. "They decided they may be able to trade him."
U.S. officials reject any equivalence between Gross, who was promoting Internet access, and the Cuban Five, who were accused of infiltrating U.S. military facilities and sending classified information back to the Cuban government.
USAID says it is managing its Cuba program differently, though it declines to specify changes. Nonetheless, officials say, the "fundamental principle" continues.
"The core of the USAID Cuba Program remains in providing humanitarian support, building civil society and democratic space, facilitating the information flow in, out, and within the island," said Mark Lopes, deputy assistant administrator for the agency's Latin America and Caribbean Bureau. "These programs are comparable to what we and other donors do to support democracy and human rights in repressive societies all over the world."
With an exchange not up for negotiation, officials, analysts and supporters say, it is unclear what will win Gross' freedom.
Van Hollen spoke at a demonstration outside the Cuban Interests Section in September.
"I don't know what the point the Cuban government is trying to make, but they should understand the point and message they're sending to the rest of the world," he said. "And that point is that the they fear freedom, and they refuse to do the humanitarian thing."
Gross, who is imprisoned at the Carlos J. Finlay Military Hospital in Havana, has lost 100 pounds since his arrest, according to his wife. She says arthritis now prevents him from exercising.
Cuban authorities have allowed the couple to speak by telephone once a week; she has visited him three times, most recently three weeks ago.
"When people visit him and report back that he looks good, you have to know Alan to understand that he is this jovial, strong-willed person who always puts forth an effort to be in a good mood," she said. "So he's able to pull himself together.
"When I saw him, his mood was a combination of very, very angry and very depressed. He's got a lot of stored-up anger and he has no outlet for it."
Dec. 3, 2009: Alan Gross of Potomac, working as a subcontractor to USAID, arrested in Cuba.
June 17, 2010: Judy Gross and other family members meet with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Clinton calls on Cuba to release Alan Gross.
Aug. 4, 2010: Judy Gross writes to Cuban President Raul Castro to ask for her husband's freedom.
Aug. 26, 2010: New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson raises case with Cuban foreign minister during meeting in Havana.
Jan. 13, 2011: Then-Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson meets with Gross.
March 4-5, 2011: Gross tried by five-judge panel in Havana on charges of crimes against the state.
March 12, 2011: Court convicts Gross, sentences him to 15 years.
March 30, 2011: Former President Jimmy Carter meets with Gross.
July 22, 2011: Gross appeals his sentence before the Cuban Supreme Court.
Aug. 5, 2011: Cuban Supreme Court denies appeal.
Sept. 8, 2011: Cuban authorities deny Richardson's request to meet with Gross.
Sept. 23, 2011: Supporters hold first weekly vigil for Gross outside Cuban Interests Section in Washington.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun