Arrest Brings New Chill In U.S.-Cuba Relations

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In Cuba, a U.S. government contractor has been held in prison, without formal charges, for more than three months. Cuban authorities say they think he is a spy, but American officials say he was just doing development work.

The incident has soured the Obama administration's cautious outreach to Cuba and left a trail of questions about the contractor and the program he worked for.

Alan Gross was at the airport preparing to leave Havana in early December when Cuban security agents arrested him. Since then, the 60-year-old Maryland resident has been locked up in Villa Marista, a high-security prison.

U.S. officials are working on the case and demanding his release, says Gloria Berbena, a State Department official at the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana. But she would not offer more details about Gross' case, citing privacy restrictions.

"We take every opportunity to raise the issue with the Cuban government. So far since his detention, we've been given two visits," she said.

Gross' friends and family describe him as a global do-gooder, not a spy. They are worried about his health, saying he has lost 52 pounds since his arrest.

"Mr. Gross should be released immediately on humanitarian grounds. We're very concerned about his welfare, and we're pressing for continued consular access to insure he's being well-treated," Berbena said.

American officials don't have a lot of bargaining leverage, though.

Gross entered Cuba on a tourist visa, but he was in the country to do a job. His employer, Development Alternatives Inc., was under contract from the U.S. Agency for International Development to help Cuban dissident groups and promote democratic values.

The Cuban government says Gross was handing out prohibited communications equipment. His company says it was meant to help members of the island's Jewish community connect to the Internet.

Adela Dworin, president of Havana's largest synagogue, the Patronato, said she had never heard of Gross prior to his arrest. But she said the synagogue does have computers with Web access.

"We have Internet. I don't have Internet at home, but we have Internet in the Jewish community. And we have e-mail. And it's very easy for us to be in touch with the rest of the world," she said.

At Havana's two other synagogues, staff members also said they had never heard of Gross.

However, there is little incentive for anyone to admit they knew him.

Cuba's leaders have said the jailed American is under investigation for spying and that he had committed "serious crimes." The island's state-run media have said little else, and Castro government officials declined to comment for this story.

Gross' arrest is now a major obstacle to any U.S. negotiations with Cuba. Some speculate that Cuba may use him to pressure Washington over the Cuban Five, a group of Cuban intelligence agents serving long sentences in U.S. prisons.

Jean Guy Allard, a Canadian-born reporter who works for Cuba's Communist Party newspaper Granma, says that Cubans are "fed up" with the actions of USAID and the National Endowment for Democracy, a U.S. nonprofit organization created and funded primarily by Congress.

"[Cubans] just won't accept forever what the U.S. wouldn't accept on their own territory," Allard said.

Elizardo Sanchez is a human-rights activist who says he spent 14 months locked in a grim, windowless cell at the same prison where Gross is now held. Sanchez says the Castro brothers don't really want normalization with Washington. He thinks they would rather have the tensions of the Cold War continue.

Meanwhile, USAID's Cuba program is now under review. Experts have asked why Gross was sent on such a risky mission — entering Cuba on a tourist visa and allegedly distributing equipment that is illegal there — while working for a U.S. government program that operates openly.

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