WASHINGTON – U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Kensington, met Tuesday with Alan Gross, a Potomac-based contractor detained in Cuba since 2009.
Gross, 63, was accused of actions “against the state” and sentenced to 15 years in prison for bringing communications equipment into the country illegally.
“I was pleased to have the opportunity to join Senator (Patrick) Leahy in meeting with Alan Gross as part of my trip to Cuba,” Van Hollen said in a statement. “We discussed a wide range of issues, and I assured him we were doing everything possible to secure his immediate release.”
Gross, a veteran contractor, was hired to go to Cuba by a subcontractor for the United States Agency for International Development.
He planned to set-up a WiFi network to connect Cuba’s Jewish community to the Internet, part of a State Department program. He was arrested on his fifth visit to the country.
Van Hollen attended as part of a seven-person congressional delegation led by Democratic Sen. Leahy of Vermont. The delegation, which arrived in Cuba Monday, is next headed to Haiti.
“I hope that this is the beginning of a discussion on resolving this situation,” said Ron Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, which has advocated for Gross’ release. “It can only be positive.”
Halber’s group has worked on a variety of initiatives — online petitions, drumming up congressional signatures and a weekly protest in front of the Cuban Interests Section in Washington — to free Gross, who, along with his wife, Judith Gross, was very active in the local Jewish community.
Van Hollen’s delegation also met with Cuban President Raul Castro, who has led the country since 2008.
“I indicated to President Raul Castro that the release of Mr. Gross is essential if we are to going to improve the relationship between the United States and Cuba – something I believe is in the interest of both of our countries,” Van Hollen said.
Judith Gross has expressed concerns about her husband’s health. She sent a letter to Castro in early January pleading for an independent medical examination, specifically regarding a mass on her husband’s shoulder she fears is cancerous.
“President Castro, please, can’t we just resolve questions about my husband’s health once and for all,” she wrote. “(Alan) has been in prison far too long. You have the authority and power to end this stalemate.”
Judith Gross could not be reached for comment, and the organization representing her, Perseus Strategies, refused comment.
The case has further strained American relations with Cuba, which have been rocky since a U.S.-initiated embargo against the country in the early 1960s. Many Cuban-Americans still oppose an easing of tensions with the island nation, though President Obama has made it easier for Americans to visit the country.
Maryland’s two senators, Barbara Mikulski and Ben Cardin, have also been vocal in their calls for Gross’ release.
Cardin sponsored a resolution demanding Gross’ unconditional release, which the Senate passed unanimously in early December.
Several American politicians and members of Congress have visited Cuba over the last few years in the hope of securing his release, though none have been successful.
“It’s outrageous that a fellow American would be sitting in a prison like that,” Halber said, calling the case against Gross “indefensible.” “The time has come, very simply, to bring him home.”