Cable recounts American's 1st contact in Cuba jail

September 1, 2011 - 9:05 PM
Cuba Imprisoned American

FILE - In this file photo provided by the Gross family shows Alan and Judy Gross in an unknown location. Alan Gross, a 61-year-old Maryland native, was arrested in December 2009 and charged with undermining Cuba's government by bringing communications equipment onto the island illegally. The USAID subcontractor sentenced to 15 years in jail in Cuba told an American diplomat soon after his arrest that authorities had interrogated him for two hours a day and were well aware of his activities on the island even before the questioning, according to a leaked U.S. diplomatic cable from Havana. Gross also said he was suffering health problems but asked the U.S. consular official to tell his loved ones he was in a good state of mind. (AP Photo/Gross Family, File)

HAVANA (AP) — A USAID subcontractor sentenced to 15 years in jail in Cuba told an American diplomat soon after his arrest that authorities had interrogated him for two hours a day and were well aware of his activities on the island even before the questioning, according to a leaked U.S. diplomatic cable from Havana.

Maryland native Alan Gross also said he had health problems but asked the U.S. consular official to tell his loved ones he was in a good state of mind.

Gross asked the U.S. Interests Section in Havana to "relay to his family that his sense of humor is intact, that he is worried about them and that he wants his name kept out of the press," read the confidential dispatch from December 2009, leaked to WikiLeaks and separately obtained by The Associated Press.

Made public this week, it gave new details of U.S. consular officials' first access to Gross during a jailhouse visit more than three weeks after he was detained. Another cable shows a growing frustration among American officials who said they issued several requests before the Cuban government allowed them to see the prisoner.

Despite Gross' concerns about privacy, hundreds of news stories have been written about his arrest in early December 2009 and conviction earlier this year on charges of illegally importing banned communications equipment. His imprisonment has become a major sticking point between Cold War foes Washington and Havana, and dampened the prospects for improving relations.

Gross, 62, has said he was helping the island's tiny Jewish community improve its online capabilities, although Jewish leaders in Havana have denied working with him. Cuban officials including President Raul Castro have singled out the case to criticize U.S. democracy-building programs that they say fund subversive activity on the island and aim to undermine the communist government.

During the jailhouse interview, Gross told a U.S. consular officer "that (Cuban) officials quote, knew everything, end quote, before he was taken into custody and had asked for details of all his activities, i.e., the projects and companies he had worked for in the 54 countries he had traveled to during his 30 year career," the cable said, an indication Gross felt the island's security officials were monitoring him closely.

Gross asked whether any other U.S. citizens were in the same situation and whether his case was comparable to that of the so-called Cuban Five, a reference to the Cuban agents serving long prison terms in the United States for spying on militant anti-Castro exile groups. The consul general "did not respond to either of these questions," the cable said.

The message was dated Dec. 28, the same day as the visit, and sent out in the name of Jonathan Farrar, who at the time was the chief U.S. diplomat on the island.

Another cable sent Dec. 14, 2009, described a meeting between Farrar and the Cuban Foreign Ministry's director of North American affairs, Josefina Vidal, in which the latter promised consular access to Gross following two formal requests.

In the meeting, Farrar mentioned that U.S. diplomats "had sent two diplomatic notes requesting access to him, without response."

"Josefina Vidal said she had acted upon the first note but hadn't seen the second" — a story that the cable's author called "unlikely."

Farrar stressed that "we need access to him per international conventions," and Vidal promised access later that week, the dispatch said.

Gross told the consul during the Dec. 28 visit that he was suffering from hypertension and an ulcer, and had fallen down and fainted, according to the other cable. He said he was being treated well and respectfully, was not being physically abused, and had been allowed to speak by phone to his wife, Judy, twice since his arrest in early December.

"However, he did reveal that the interrogation schedule had been very intense at first; he estimated that it had endured on average 2 hours daily," the cable read.

Gross said personal effects including his passport, two cell phones, an iPod and electronic adapters had been confiscated, and Cuban officials told him he was being charged with "contraband."

Authorities ultimately tried and convicted Gross under a far more serious statute known as Article 91, which equated his activities with crimes against the state.

The missive did not say where Gross was incarcerated at the time, but said that he was sharing his cell with two other inmates and that the room had a television and a fan. More recently, Gross has been at a military hospital in the Cuban capital, according to people who have visited him.

Gross' final legal appeal was denied by the Cuban Supreme Court last month, leaving the U.S. government and his family hoping for a possible release on humanitarian grounds since several close family members have serious illnesses and Gross has apparently lost about 100 pounds (45 kilos) while in custody.

The leak of a vast archive of diplomatic communication has embarrassed officials around the world and even cost some their jobs, including the U.S. ambassador to Mexico.

In Havana, U.S. Interests Section spokeswoman Gloria Berbena declined Thursday to comment on specific cables or even confirm their authenticity as a matter of government policy. Speaking generally, she said Washington "condemns the illegal disclosure of classified information," which the government says puts individuals' safety at risk, threatens national security, and harms diplomatic efforts to work with countries on shared problems.

Cuba, meanwhile, has relished Washington's predicament, with former Cuban President Fidel Castro hailing WikiLeaks and sites like it as the common man's tool to greater worldwide transparency.