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May 23, 2012 10:49 am

NY Rabbi Meets Cuban Diplomats to Urge Release of Alan Gross

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avatar by Maxine Dovere / JNS.org

Alan Gross and his wife Judy in Jerusalem. Photo: Gross family.

Rabbi Dr. Elie Abadi met with top Cuban diplomats in New York and Washington, DC, from May 14-15 in an effort to foster the release of imprisoned Jewish contractor Alan Gross.

Abadi, a leading figure in the Sephardic Jewish community, told JointMedia News Service that he first hosted the diplomats at the Edmund J. Safra Synagogue in New York, followed by a second series of meetings in Washington, DC.

The rabbi also brought the plight of Gross to the public forum in his comments at a Capitol Hill event commemorating Jewish Heritage Month.

“He was like a soldier in the U.S. war for democracy,” Abadi said of Gross, 63, who is serving a 15-year prison sentence in Cuba for trying to provide Internet access to the country’s Jewish community. “It is the ultimate responsibility of the U.S. not to leave any of its soldiers behind.”

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Tried and found guilty by a Cuban tribunal, the USAID contractor has been held in Cuban prisons for more than two and a half years. He was found guilty of doing work apparently sanctioned by the American government—bringing communications equipment into Cuba.  The U.S. termed his work—funded under the Helms-Burton Act—”democracy-building.” According to official statements, Gross was working only with “peaceful, non-dissident, Jewish groups” in Cuba.

Cuba convicted Gross of “crimes against the state,” saying his aim was regime change.

On May 9, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking to CNN, reiterated that Gross traveled to Cuba only to help the Jewish community. Saying she is “deeply distressed and unhappy,” she called his incarceration an “injustice,” and said “there should be a decision by the Cuban government to release him.” Clinton acknowledged the Cuban government’s interest in the return of five of its spies, “the Cuban Five,” captured and imprisoned in the U.S.

However, testifying before a House of Representatives committee in late February, Clinton said: “We’ve made no deals, we’ve offered no concessions and we don’t intend to do so” to secure the freedom of Gross.

Rabbi Elie Abadi, senior rabbi of the Edmund J. Safra Synagogue, spoke of Alan Gross as a "soldier in the war for democracy." Photo: Maxine Dovere.

Have the circumstances changed since those comments? Clinton has suggested that the Jewish community must secure Gross’s release. The Cuban government, according to a source who spoke with JointMedia News Service on condition of anonymity, has also “requested that the Jewish community act as liaison to arrange negotiation for Gross’s release and coordinate release of the Cuban Five—to be commenced without preconditions.”

Is Gross a pawn in the five-decade old divide between the U.S. and Cuba? As of this report, the U.S. State Department still appears to have its bridges pulled up, denying any opportunity for compromise or resolution.

During his imprisonment, Gross has lost about 100 pounds. He is allowed a weekly telephone call to his family and his lawyer. On May 3, that call was with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, who noted that efforts of many on Gross’s behalf, including Pope Benedict and New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson had, to date, failed. Gross sent a “message of respect” to Raul Castro and a promise to the people of Cuba “to work to improve business” for their “wonderful” population.

The family of Alan Gross is turning to personal diplomacy to secure his release. His wife, Judy, has spoken before members of the Jewish Federations of North America, asking them to press Congress and the Cuban government for the release of her husband. Gwen Zuares, Alan Gross’s sister-in-law, who spoke with JointMedia News Service in Washington, saying Alan “has done nothing wrong.” She continues to lead protests outside the Cuban Interests Section in Washington.

“I will be out here every week until we see Alan on U.S. soil,” Zuares said.

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