Ashley Lucas: For the Families of Those in Foreign Prisons: A Meditation on Alan Gross’ Incarceration in Cuba

8 Aug

On August 5, 2011, the New York Times reported that U.S. citizen Alan Gross has lost his appeal to be released from prison in Cuba.

Let me preface my remarks about the case by saying that I am by no means an expert on Mr. Gross’ political leanings or those of the people who have funded his work in Cuba.  An earlier New York Times article from March 12, 2011 depicts the tensions between the U.S. government’s view of Gross as a humanitarian trying to bring greater internet access to the people of Cuba and the Cuban government’s belief that Gross was breaking Cuban laws by bringing forbidden technology into the country.  There are also suppositions that Gross’ work in Cuba was supported by Jewish communities in the U.S. trying to open up lines of communication with Cuban Jews and that he also received backing from conservative Cuban Americans and the United States Agency for International Development.  Whatever the political underpinnings of the situation may be, two essential circumstances of this case are very clear: 1) Gross brought technological equipment into Cuba that would help Cubans communicate more readily with the rest of the world. 2) Gross has been sentenced to serve fifteen years in a Cuban prison and has now exhausted the appeals process in the Cuban courts.

The notoriously spotty internet service in Cuba is due in part to the fact that the U.S. government will not allow Cuba to have access to the high speed internet cable which runs underneath the ocean from the U.S. almost to the shores of Cuba.  The U.S. embargo covers not only trade but the availability of this technology.  Cuba has now signed a deal with Venezuela and is currently constructing a high speed line which will run under the ocean from Venezuela to Cuba.  How much the Cuban government will restrict internet access for average Cuban citizens once this much superior technology reaches the island remains to be seen, but it is highly likely that the government will continue to restrict web usage in some significant ways.

When Jodie and I were in Cuba, we attempted to check email on a fairly regular basis so that we could communicate with our families in the U.S. and because we were eagerly awaiting the news of Jodie’s tenure decision.  (Jodie was granted tenure in the Women’s Studies Department at California State University-San Marcos shortly after we returned from our trip, but while we were traveling, we were on pins and needles waiting for the good news.  Congratulations, Jodie!)  We quickly discovered that getting on the internet in Cuba is a massive ordeal and costs a fair amount of money.  Our hotel had no internet service whatsoever, but several other hotels in the Havana Vieja district where we were staying did have a few computers with internet access.  Hotels charge about 15 CUC (Cuban dollars, which at the time of our trip had an exchange rate slightly higher than that of the U.S. dollar) per hour of internet access, and though some computers were slower than others, we found that all the places where we paid to get on the internet had the slowest, most ancient form of dial-up internet access imaginable.  Living the rather privileged life of a university student and later professor in the U.S., I had not seen internet that slow since the mid-1990s.

Our first foray into the mysteries of internet use in Cuba was nothing short of an adventure.  We’d heard that a certain hotel near ours had internet access, so we marched up to the front desk and asked the attendant if we could use the internet at the hotel.  The desk clerk asked us to have a seat in the lobby and said that someone would come to assist us shortly.  After about ten or fifteen minutes, a man emerged from the interior of the hotel and invited us to follow him.  We rode an elevator up several floors and then followed the man down a long hallway.  He lifted up a rope strung across a doorway to prevent people from entering this part of the hotel, and we ducked under the rope and entered a deserted room with no lighting and a few odd pieces of furniture.  At the back of this room, he opened a small doorway, and we were ushered into a cramped, dimly lit room with about six computers in it.  All but one of the computers had rather urgent and frustrated looking people sitting in front of them.  We sat down in front of the one unoccupied computer and began attempting to access our email accounts.  Neither of us could gain access to our university email accounts, but Jodie was finally able to open up a non-university email account and get a message to her husband that we had arrived safely in Cuba.  That’s all we could do with 15 CUCs of internet time.  We later found another hotel with slightly faster internet service that didn’t require a trip to a sketchy back room, but we still had to wait much longer to for others to finish using the computer and could not do much on email in an hour’s worth of internet time once we got on the computer.  If we as privileged foreigners had that much trouble using the internet in Cuba, I cannot imagine how little technological access the average Cuban must have.  Though I cannot speak to the righteousness or corruption of his means of bringing technology to Cuba, Alan Gross recognized a severe lack of access and chose to take action.

The most recent Times article on Gross suggests that the matter of his incarceration be settled through diplomacy rather than through the courts, and indeed this seems like the only option remaining for those advocating for his release.  Gross suffers from diabetes and is reported to have lost over ninety pounds while in prison.  He is married, and his daughter, who is in her twenties, has been undergoing cancer treatment in the U.S.

Without knowing enough about the particulars of the case or of Cuban law to be able to weigh in on Gross’s guilt or innocence, my heart is filled today with thoughts of Gross’s wife and daughter.  As the child of someone incarcerated in the U.S., my greatest fear is that my father might endure some health problem during his incarceration and would not receive proper health care.  I know that he suffers most in prison when he has cause to worry about my health or that of my mother and sister.  The Gross family carries the heavy burden of pressing health concerns on both sides of the prison walls, and though I have no direct knowledge of this, I would guess that communication between Gross and his loved ones must be difficult and perhaps infrequent.  At the very least, prison officials read or listen to all of our letters and phone conversations in most prisons all over the world, and this not only limits our abilities to speak freely with one another but makes us aware that even what is most private and intimate between family members is being monitored by people who have no stake in our family’s well being and whom we did not invite to share in our personal joys and sorrows.

Communication and access to people beyond one’s immediate reach are the issues at hand, both for Cubans with family and friends abroad and for the incarcerated and their families all over the world.  For whatever small value this missive in cyberspace might have, my thoughts and best wishes today are with those who cannot touch and perhaps cannot speak openly with those they love.

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7 Responses to “Ashley Lucas: For the Families of Those in Foreign Prisons: A Meditation on Alan Gross’ Incarceration in Cuba”

  1. Jamila August 9, 2011 at 8:59 pm #

    This is heartbreaking. I cannot imagine having someone monitor my private conversations with my family and loved ones. How horrifying.
    I had no idea internet access in Cuba was so scarce. Thanks for reminding me of my privilege. It’s so easy to forget it but so very important to be aware of it.

  2. Sarah August 10, 2011 at 4:24 pm #

    Ashley,
    I was not aware of Mr. Gross’ situation and am deeply disturbed for him and his family. I cannot imagine the pain they are going through at this moment as well as those individuals who have family members currently incarcerated. I find the comment about using “diplomacy rather than through the courts” particularly interesting because of how diplomacy is currently viewed in the United States. Just from the little work I have done with incarceration this summer I get the sense that courts are more trusted than polticians even though both have reputations of being corrupt. Because Mr. Gross was employed by the U.S. Agency for International Development I have a couple of lingering questions: This may be obvious, but is diplomacy a call for political action as opposed to legal action? And what authority does the State Department have in helping Mr. Gross when the Cuban courts have already sentenced him?

    • razorwirewoman August 14, 2011 at 4:54 pm #

      Good questions, Sarah! Many thanks to you, Jamila, and the other readers of this post who have emailed me personally to discuss it. I am very glad to be able to draw attention to what is going on in Cuba.

      Let me preface this by saying that I’m not a political scientist or a scholar who studies international relations. This is my take on the notions of political action and diplomacy, not a thoroughly researched scholarly response to your questions.

      Diplomacy is something akin to but distinct from political action. We often think of political action on a small scale as something activist in nature and on a governmental scale as something which clearly expresses one country’s official view of or feelings about another country. To say that the U.S. and Cuba have a fraught relationship is an understatement, and diplomatic interactions between the countries are very sensitive matters. President Obama has been easing up the restrictions on the embargo that the U.S. has long placed on Cuba, which is the main reason why Jodie and I could travel with relative ease as scholars presenting our research in Cuba. That’s political action but in a rather tentative form.

      As the U.S. pursues diplomatic talks with the Cuban government in an attempt to secure Alan Gross’s release, our country is not taking political action in relation to all U.S. citizens imprisoned in Cuba, much less taking a national stance on whether or not Gross’s work bringing internet technology to Cuba ought to be sanctioned by the Cuban government. To take a stance on the issue writ large would be political action, whereas to lobby for Mr. Gross individually is diplomacy. Diplomacy is about negotiation, whereas political action seems to me to be about doing something whether its been well-negotiated or not.

      To attempt to respond to your second question, I assume that the U.S. has little to no authority in this situation, as it is happening on Cuban soil and in response to Cuban law. We don’t hold treaties with Cuba that demand that one country must return captive citizens of the other country, and since the U.S. certainly imprisons Cuban citizens, including those convicted of political crimes (the famous Cuban Five among them), the Cuban government can easily say that the U.S. has no authority to demand Gross’s release. A diplomatic request for Gross to be returned to the U.S., however, can be made even without the U.S. government having any legal authority in this situation.

      Diplomacy is about efforts to heal damaged relationships, and whether it centers around Mr. Gross or not, diplomatic efforts between the U.S. and Cuba have, in my humble opinion, been needed for many decades. The political rift between these countries divides families and loved ones and causes a great deal of suffering.

  3. Sarah August 16, 2011 at 4:38 am #

    Hey Ashley,
    I received this email from change.org today and was just highly disturbed by the whole incident. I will be doing more research to figure out if any other type of coverage has been done.

    Kelley Williams-Bolar is a single mom from Akron, Ohio who was sentenced to 10 days in jail and 3 years probation for sending her kids to a safer school in her father’s neighboring district, instead of the crime-ridden district where she lives.

    While Kelley has already spent her time in jail for this crime, the conviction will stay on her record for life. That means Kelley can’t ever teach in Ohio, even though she’s on her way to completing her teaching degree. She needs a full pardon from Ohio’s Governor to clear her name.

    The Ohio Parole Board has less than 60 days to recommend to Ohio Governor John Kasich if Kelley Williams-Bolar deserves to be pardoned. Can you sign the petition to Gov. John Kasich and demand that he pardon Kelley Williams-Bolar for sending her kids to a safer school district?

    After more than 100,000 Change.org members and other activists signed petitions asking Gov. Kasich to pardon Kelley, the Governor asked the Ohio Parole Board to look into Kelley’s conviction and report if she should be pardoned. During her hearing last month, Kelley made clear that her only goal was her children’s safety. “I did some things wrong,” Kelley said to the Parole Board through her tears. “But I love my kids.”

    The judge in Kelley’s case said that the harsh penalties for telling district officials that her children lived with Kelley’s father, when in fact they lived with her in a different town, will serve as a message to other parents considering a similar move.

    But your message is clear too: Ohio should be working to improve all schools, instead of punishing parents whose children are trapped in unsafe, ineffective schools. Please sign the petition to ask Ohio Governor John Kasich to pardon Kelley Williams-Bolar.

    http://www.change.org/petitions/gov-john-kasich-pardon-kelley-williams-bolar-she-shouldnt-go-to-jail-for-protecting-her-kids

    Thank you for taking action,

    – Patrick and the Change.org team

    • razorwirewoman August 16, 2011 at 11:57 am #

      Sarah, thank you for bringing Ms. Williams-Bolar’s case to the attention of those reading this blog. It’s amazing just how many kinds of injustice surround women in the U.S.

  4. Damion August 24, 2011 at 8:53 pm #

    It is sad that the price to pay for making the means available for the masses to be able to educate and think for themselves remains so high in this day and age. I think there should be some type of human right’s regulation governed by the U.N. that reasonably limits the maximum amount of time someone can be given for actions that are not universally accepted as crimes such as theft or murder. I tend to think of crimes such as the one he is charged with as grey area crimes because whether or not an infraction is commited depends on the society in which one lives. It should looked at as a violation of human rights to take away so much of someone’s life due to commiting one of these grey area crimes in my opinion. It seems we’ve come so far, but it’s very clear that we still have a long long way to go.

  5. Phillip August 31, 2011 at 6:33 pm #

    When thinking of Cuba, not once has it come to mind that they would be so behind on educating the masses on technology. I never would have thought it would cost a fortune to use technology that is so far behind the United States. I feel as if I have been living in a world of this belief seeing that I have never been out of the country, also I feel that I am not the only one of my colleagues that feel this way. This message pushes me even more to go abroad in the next upcoming year so that I can witness for myself the differences in education and government that citizens of different countries face.

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