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.