WASHINGTON — — As Alan Gross neared his third anniversary behind bars in Cuba, his wife gave new details of his deteriorating health and issued an impassioned plea to officials in Washington and Havana to negotiate his release immediately.
Judy Gross, who visited her husband in September, said the Montgomery County man has lost 110 pounds since his arrest in December 2009, is suffering chronic pain from degenerative arthritis and now has a mass behind one shoulder. She said their American radiologist has told her the growth could be cancerous and should be assumed to be malignant until tested and proved otherwise.
She and her attorney called on U.S. officials to step up efforts to free him.
"I continue to fear that his life is in jeopardy," she told reporters at the National Press Club in Washington Friday during a rare news conference. "I cannot and I will not allow my husband to die in a Cuban prison."
Gross, 63, a veteran aid worker working as a subcontractor to the U.S. Agency for International Development, was detained at the Havana airport on his fifth trip to Cuba. He had been carrying cellphones, laptop computers and satellite communications equipment into the communist nation as part of a USAID program to promote democracy.
Gross, who grew up around Baltimore and graduated from Milford Mill High School and the University of Maryland, said he was helping Cuba's small Jewish community set up an intranet. He was convicted last year of crimes against the state and sentenced to 15 years.
President Barack Obama has called on Cuba to release Gross, as have Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Montgomery County and others. Former President Jimmy Carter and former Ambassador Bill Richardson have raised his case with Cuban officials during visits to the island.
On Friday, Judy Gross and attorney Jared Genser urged Obama to assign a high-level envoy — someone the Cubans will view as being close to the president, Genser said, but who may work in secret if necessary — to negotiate his release.
"It's clear that the United States government is concerned about Alan Gross and wants him to be out of prison," Genser said. "We don't question that at all. However, so far the efforts that have been undertaken by definition have not been successful. … It's time the tactics changed."
The White House referred questions to the State Department, where a spokesman said Gross' case remains a "high priority" for the United States.
"We have continuously engaged the Cuban government since the detention of Mr. Gross three years ago, and we will continue to do so," spokesman William Ostick said. "In this period, U.S. officials at all levels have made sure that the Cuban government and governments around the world are aware of the urgent need to see Mr. Gross released so he can return to his family."
Genser said the Obama administration had successfully won the freedom of Americans imprisoned overseas "in very tough situations" — three backpackers held in Iran after hiking along the Iran-Iraq border, two journalists detained in North Korea after investigating human trafficking, a man arrested in Burma after trespassing on the home of dissident Aung San Suu Kyi.
The difference in Gross' case, he said, was that he was sent to Cuba by the U.S. government, which he said now has a "special duty and obligation … to take whatever extraordinary efforts are necessary to sit down with the government of Cuba and to secure his release from prison."
Gross has filed a $60 million lawsuit against the federal government and DAI, the Bethesda-based USAID contractor for whom he was working in Cuba, saying they did not give him sufficient training for the project or inform him of the risks involved.
He has also sued DAI's insurer, which he says has declined to pay a claim for his wrongful imprisonment.
Genser said the lawsuits were filed last month to preserve Gross' rights before statutes of limitations expired. He said the family is focused on securing his freedom, not litigating civil claims.
Judy Gross said her husband's appearance when she visited in September left her "in shock."
"I saw bones sticking out of his shoulders and his wrists," she said. "I saw a vibrant man turned into a hunched-over, maybe 80-year-old man, with none of that smile that I'm so used to."
Cuban doctors have performed a needle-aspiration biopsy on the mass and declared it benign, but Genser said additional tests — including CT scans with and without contrast and an ultrasound-directed biopsy — are needed to confirm the diagnosis.
He said Gross has requested an independent examination by the doctor of his choice — as is his right under international law, he said — but has been denied.
Judy Gross described her husband as a "pawn" in the long-troubled relationship between the United States and Cuba. During his hearing in Havana, she said, the prosecutor spent more than an hour in his opening remarks denouncing U.S. politicians and policies against Cuba, without ever mentioning Gross.
When they visited in September, she said, her husband told her that he felt as if he had been "dumped and forgotten."
"Those are his words," she said. "He feels that the government sent him on a project, it didn't work, and that's the end of their responsibility. So he feels like a soldier left in the field to die."