National Press Club

Former Cuban political prison Alan Gross says Obama visit timely, could aid private sector communication

March 15, 2016 | By Bob Weiner and Ben Lasky |,

Alan P. Gross

Alan P. Gross

President Obama's visit next week to Cuba and the newly improved relations with the U.S. have the potential bring more open communication and full internet access, which could help shift Cuba’s embargo-hamstrung economy from 11% private sector to 90%, former Cuban political prisoner Alan Gross told a packed Newsmaker on Tuesday.

“Information is food for the brain,” and would allow learning and better product development, including poultry feeding and agriculture land improvement, areas of potential Cuban economic strength, Gross said. U.S. businesses, such as Maryland’s poultry industry, could also benefit the Cuban people. “Food security is a real issue for Cuba," he said.

Open communication including land-based Internet has not happened because “the Cuban government has fear in its DNA," Gross said. Instead, the The government uses a far costlier satellite system. Some Internet hotspots exist, but the service is so expensive that few people can afford to use it.

Cuba's economy is hampered by lack of opportunity for grown and advancement, not the embargo, Gross said.

“Obama is bringing hope and private industry who will invest. Now Congress needs to end the embargo," Gross said. “Even though Obama is going to a baseball game, Congress should step up to the plate."

Gross said the March 20 trip will help Obama, “manage his legacy,” assuming he raises critical issues, such human rights and abuses of power.

“He should not meet with Fidel, who represents the past, human rights abuses, and crimes against humanity. Raul no longer represents those things," said. "He and Obama are pragmatic.”

Gross spent five years in a Cuban prison from 2009 to 2014 and was introduced as Obama’s guest at the 2015 State of the Union a month after he was freed.

Gross said he worked for a USAID subcontractor to establish broadband connectivity and his imprisonment was “arbitrary.” He said the government had vans tracking internet radio transmissions all over the island. One turned up outside his working area. In addition, “the government has a record of every email.”

During his imprisonment he lost 110 pounds, several teeth, and the use of joints. He went on a nine-day hunger strike to protest his treatment until his mother asked him to end the strike. For the duration of his five years, he survived on “daily exercise” and “faith”.

Gross said his release was due a grassroots effort led by his wife, Judy, and his lawyer, with visits to him by former President Jimmy Carter and First Lady Rosalynn Carter, and outreach by Rep. Chris Van Hollen, Sen. Patrick Leahy, Pope Francis, Teamsters Union President Jimmy Hoffa Jr., and Jewish and Interfaith religious organizations. Carter told him in a jail visit that Raul Castro said to him, “I know Alan’s not a spy.”

He said he’d happily return to the island to help future communication if invited.

"Despite the sensory deprivation during my imprisonment…I’m not bitter," he said. "I’m a happy camper. I’m free. I can walk a straight line, not a circle. I walk four to six miles a day.”