October 24, 2010 / 12:23 PM / 10 years ago

Exclusive: American held in Cuba expresses regret to Raul Castro

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The wife of a U.S. aid contractor jailed in Cuba has written to President Raul Castro expressing her husband’s regret for his work there and told Reuters the White House has done little to gain his release.

U.S. aid contractor Alan Gross and his wife Judy (2nd L) pose with their daughters during a Friday Shabbat dinner at a friend's home in the Washington area, in this undated family photograph released on October 23, 2010. REUTERS/Family Photograph/Handout

Judy Gross said that in the letter, which Castro read but did not respond to, she pleaded with him to free her husband Alan because their daughter has been diagnosed with breast cancer and he is needed at home.

Alan Gross, 61, who worked for a Washington-area company contracted under a U.S. Agency for International Development program to promote democracy in Cuba, was arrested at the Havana airport on December 3 and has been held on suspicion of espionage and subversion.

In an interview this weekend, his wife denied he was a spy and said he went to Cuba five times last year to help Havana’s Jewish community gain Internet access to Jews worldwide.

Cuban officials say Gross committed “serious crimes” by giving restricted satellite communications equipment to local dissidents, but no legal charges have been filed.

His detention has stalled efforts by Washington to improve ties with the communist-led island.

Judy Gross criticized the White House for not doing enough to seek release of her husband, whom she called a “pawn” caught up in a decades-old ideological feud between the United States and Cuba. She said she has heard nothing from President Barack Obama.

The White House said on Sunday it shared her “concern and frustration with the continued unwarranted detention of her husband.”

“Administration officials have repeatedly made clear to Cuban authorities that Alan Gross should be released immediately to be able to rejoin his wife and family — and we will continue to do so,” National Security Council spokesman Mike Hammer said in a statement.

In an August 4 letter to Castro, she wrote, “I recognize today that the Cuban government may not like the type of work that Alan was doing in Cuba.”

“But I want you to know that Alan loves the people of Cuba, and he only wanted to help them. He never intended them, or your government, any harm,” she said.

“To the extent his work may have offended you or your government, he and I are genuinely remorseful,” she wrote.

She told Castro her family needed Gross home since his 26-year-old daughter, whose name she asked not be used, was diagnosed with cancer and is undergoing chemotherapy.

The only response came at a meeting this month with Jorge Alberto Bolanos, head of the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, who offered mother and daughter visas to visit Gross in Cuba. He said President Castro had read her letter.

‘CAGED LION’

Cuba allowed Judy Gross to visit her husband in late July at Havana’s Finlay Military Hospital where he shares a cell with two Cubans. They met during the day for three days in an improvised visiting room.

“He looked like walking death,” she said of her first sight of her burly 6-foot husband, who in almost 11 months of detention has lost 86 pounds.

“His pants and shirt were too big. It was a shock.”

Gross was dragging his right foot due to a disk problem that will need surgery, suffers from arthritis, has gout and developed an ulcer from the stress and diet, she said.

“For a long time they kept the lights on all night. The heat was unbearable,” she said. Following complaints by U.S. diplomats, his cell now has air conditioning and a television set on which he watches lots of baseball.

But she returned home to news of her daughter’s illness and when it was passed on to her husband, he was devastated.

“He felt totally impotent, unable to do anything for a daughter in need. He feels like a caged lion. He cannot relax. He feels he has to get out of there,” said his wife.

WHITE HOUSE ABSENT

She has met with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and praised U.S. State Department efforts on her husband’s behalf.

But Judy Gross expressed disappointment with Obama for failing to weigh in, even though her husband spent five weeks campaigning in rural Virginia for Obama’s election.

“Not a call, not even an email,” she said. Alan Gross’s 88-year-old mother Evelyn wrote to Obama and got no response.

While the Cuban government has not stated its conditions for releasing Gross, a source close to the case said it likely wants Washington to end its Cuba aid programs, which Cuban leaders view as attempts to subvert the communist government.

“I think they want a recognition that their sovereignty was violated. They see USAID’s ‘Cuban Democratization Program’ as intended to undermine their authority, and one would expect they want that policy changed,” the source said.

Meanwhile, the Cubans are holding Gross hostage as an example of a foreigner who broke their laws, his wife said.

“If Alan thought something was going to happen to him in Cuba, he would not have done this. I feel he was not clearly told the risks,” she said.

Additional reporting by Ross Colvin; Editing by Jeff Franks and Jerry Norton

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