WASHINGTON — During his first year of freedom, Alan Gross has come to realize that his imprisonment in Cuba and subsequent fame has little to do with him.
His imprisonment, he believes, was due largely to the political strain between the United States and Cuba. He attributes his status as a public figure to those who followed his story on the news, especially those who signed petitions, wrote letters and granted interviews to keep his status as a prisoner in the public consciousness.
When he stepped onto the tarmac at Andrews Air Force Base on Dec. 17, 2014, he became “the return on [the] investment” of such advocates, Gross said during an interview in his Washington condominium.
“It never was about me,” the 66-year-old former detainee explained. “My life became surreal the night I became detained, and it still is today. I don’t quite understand the celebrity function.”
Gross, whose former job has taken him to 54 countries during 35 years, was working in Cuba for Development Alternatives Inc. of Bethesda, Md., which receives funding and contracts from the U.S. Agency for International Development, to get the Cuban people connected to broadband.
When entering the island nation, “I did not disguise anything,” he said. “I did not smuggle anything in. They inspected everything I brought.”
What he brought was a way for the Cuban people to receive information. He personally chose to help the Jewish community but made no secret of that to his employer. “I didn’t go half-cocked on my own,” he said.
What shook his world apart was the fact that “it is illegal to distribute anything in Cuba that is funded in full or in part by the U.S. government. That’s why they detained me initially.”
His imprisonment stretched through five years once the Cuban government realized it had a bargaining chip, Gross said. He wants people to know that his detainment had nothing to do with anti-Semitism.
He was not physically tortured, but his jailers often tried to scare him. “They threatened to hang me, pull out my fingernails. They told me I would never see the light of day.”
He recalled one time when a jailer got in his face and asked, “‘Do you know how Saddam Hussein died?’ I responded with, ‘Probably the same way you are going to die.’”
But it never really got to him because “most of what they said to me were lies. They lie about everything. I just automatically assumed nothing was true.”
During those years, he kept himself busy by walking inside the cell he was kept in for 23 hours a day, drawing “a couple thousand images” — he is now thinking about converting them into a coffee table book — and creating word puzzles.
He recalled an episode of the television show M*A*S*H in which Maj. Winchester teases Hawkeye Pierce, who was confined to his tent as a punishment, by showing Pierce that he could step in and out of the tent whenever he felt like it.
“I thought about that almost every day, the ability to step in and out,” Gross said. “The freedom, that’s what I missed every day. Freedom is an incredible thing to lose.”
For the first several months, Gross was not allowed reading materials. Once he was permitted to have them, he was able to keep up on the news, although not in real time. Visitors brought newspapers and his family sent books and Economist magazine.
But he missed his favorite foods. He rarely received fresh fruits and vegetables. He had chicken often. He ate carbohydrates in bulk — lots of rice, which he didn’t like, potatoes, yucca and malanga.
“I think I lost about 70 pounds the first year, and the next three years, [I lost] another 40 pounds,” he said. During the last year, many of his visitors brought him salami; he started to gain some of his weight back.
Due to his eating habits, Gross lost several front teeth, which he keeps in a small container in his office. “My two cellmates and I lost nine teeth,” he recalled.
His wife visited about every seven months. He saw one daughter, who lives in Oregon, only once, about six months before his release. His other daughter, who lives in Jerusalem, was not able to visit.
For the first three-and-a-half years, he was unaware that people were working for his release. He only learned of the Jewish community’s weekly vigils during a visit from his wife and attorney. He remains amazed at how many people manned that vigil, wrote emails to government officials or supported his wife, Judy, during his imprisonment.
When he received phone privileges, he contacted Ron Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington. They didn’t know each other. “I might have met him,” Gross said. But Gross was desperate, and Halber was willing to help.
Gross let it be known that he was in failing health, totally despondent and unwilling to see any visitors except his wife. He went on a nine-day hunger protest in April 2014 that alarmed the Cubans, Gross said, because they wanted him as a bargaining chip. “I wanted to turn the heat up. I was never despondent. I never wanted to take my life.”
In fact, quite the opposite. He “tried to keep a stiff upper lip,” Gross said.
Before his ordeal, Gross enjoyed spending time with the Cuban people, whose futures still gravely concern him.
“There is a food security issue in Cuba,” Gross said. Before the Cuban revolution, the country produced 60 percent of the food it eats. Now, that percentage is down to 20.
“Surely the [American] embargo has hurt, but Cuba still trades with 80 countries,” he explained. “Its biggest trade partner is Venezuela, followed by the European Union and China.”
The Cuban Jewish community fares “a little better” than the general Cuban population. That is mostly due to the involvement of Jewish communal organizations in North and South America, Gross said. A rabbi from Chile visits regularly, and there are “at least seven synagogues throughout the area.”
When he first started going to Cuba, there were 1,700 Jews. Now there are between 1,000 and 1,200, he said. The largest synagogue is located in Vedado, a Havana suburb.
“It’s just like many Jewish community centers around the world” with educational and social programs and Friday night Shabbat services and dinners, he said. The dinners are well attended, often because the meals supplement the little food people have.
Since gaining his freedom one year ago, Gross said he has done a lot of “walking, thanking people and smoking Cuban cigars.” He has a two-layer deep box of Cuban cigars in his office and several empty Cuban cigar boxes fill his shelves.
He met many of his supporters when during a welcome home party at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Md., soon after his relief. He described that evening as “very confusing,” especially since he barely knew half the people in the room.
When someone came up and asked if he could take a selfie with Gross, Gross didn’t even know what a selfie was.
He is grateful for those who cared about him all those years and in particular, Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.). He was “the first elected official to contact Judy when I was first detained,” he said. “He provided her with hope and support and let her know that his efforts would not cease until I came home.”
The celebrations have dwindled. Gross excitedly is awaiting the birth of his first grandchild. As he did in a Cuban prison, he walks, but now it’s four to six miles, often around his neighborhood near the National Zoo. Once a week, he takes a longer nine-mile walk. He also plays his 10 mandolins.
He’s worked on a book, but so far the response from publishers has been, “We don’t want another prison book.” If it is ever published, Gross said, he wants to title it, “It was never about me.”
He misses his work and believes there is much good he can still do, pointing to his efforts in Israel, Gaza City and the West Bank, where “we were developing a system where cargo could be transported safely, securely and profitably,” regardless of the political situation between Israelis and the Palestinians.
The walls and shelves of his home are decorated with art from around the world, from many of the countries he has visited. There are eye-catching masks and colorful weavings.
Pointing out where he bought much of the art, it’s clear Gross would like to return to the field. But the fear of imprisonment is there, he said, explaining that he wasn’t a spy actually worked to his disadvantage. Governments are quicker to trade one spy for another.
“Five years,” he said. “No matter how you slice it, five years in isolation can be a very long time.”
Suzanne Pollak writes for Washington Jewish Week. She can be reached at email@example.com.