Alan Gross heard knocking on the door of his Havana hotel room on the night of Dec. 3, 2009. Moments later, he found himself confronted by three men, and was taken into custody by the Cuban government. He had planned to leave on a flight back to the United States in several hours but never made it.
“I say that I was kidnapped,” Gross said to the audience of students, faculty, and community members on Tuesday afternoon.
Gross was invited to speak as a guest of the Clough Colloquium, a program meant to bring leading figures to campus to share the individual experiences they have had in their respective fields.
As a humanitarian in the public eye, Alan Gross was asked to share his journey in Cuba. He originally traveled overseas as an employee of Development Alternatives Inc., an international development company. His task was to bring communication equipment to Cuba, set it up, test it out, and train the local people in how to use it. Gross spoke passionately about the gratification he felt as he introduced the Internet to the people of a shrinking Jewish community he was assigned to. At the time, Cubans only had access to the Internet if they worked for the government—he estimated that only 2 percent of the population had such capability. Foreign guests could connect to the Internet for $6 per hour, but that was too expensive for the local people.
“Humor is good for the heart, it’s good for the mind.”
Gross played videos of the locals’ first moments utilizing such technology, and then described their excitement in being able to connect to such information.
“They had access to information, and in Cuba, information flows only go up. They don’t go down,” he said.
This became problematic for Gross because the Cuban government saw his actions as a threat.
“They didn’t see it as a technical project. What they saw was a contra-Cuba project,” Gross said. “They said that I was going to overthrow the government by myself.”
Thus, Gross was captured and tried for two days. In that time, the court sentenced him to 15 years in a maximum security prison. For three and a half years, neither the Cuban nor the U.S. government would give him any information.
“I was a prisoner of two governments,” Gross said.
He explained the less obvious reason why he was not receiving assistance from the United States. Working with his lawyer, Scott Gilbert, they found out that the U.S. government had imprisoned five Cuban men who were found guilty of conspiring to commit acts of espionage. After discussing the situation with the U.S. Justice Department, Gilbert found out that ideally, the U.S. could exchange the spies for Gross’ release, but it did not seem to make sense to the government to trade five spies for one non-spy.
“I’m not sure that democracy is what Cuba needs. The changes have to be their way, not our way.”
Therefore, Gross found himself spending the first year of his captivity entirely in a cell. After that year, he was allowed some more time outside, and he established three factors that would help him survive his ordeal. First, he would never forget his strong roots and the family he had that survived the horrors of the Holocaust. He also prioritized physical exercise, and did whatever he needed to in order to get his 10,000 steps in each day, even if this meant walking around in circles. Finally, he always made sure to find something to make him laugh.
“Humor is good for the heart, it’s good for the mind,” he said.
Although he was a prisoner, Gross sometimes received visitors, ranging from his family to political figures. He recalled one day when President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, came to speak with him. Carter explained that he had met with Raúl Castro the night before. He said that Castro had acknowledged that he knew Gross was not a spy. When Carter asked why Castro continued to hold him in custody, he replied he had to, otherwise the rest of the government would find serious fault in him.
“Castro is a pragmatist, but he doesn’t have the power that his brother did at one point,” Gross said.
On Dec. 17, 2014, Gross was finally freed in exchange for the remaining three Cuban intelligence agents.
“I don’t know if I’ll ever get the whole story behind my liberation,” he said.
He also described the initial confusion he experienced when he arrived home in the United States and encountered people in public who would stop him to take pictures. For months he could not understand, until one day he had an epiphany. He realized that all of those people were emotionally invested in him and his story. Stepping off the plane and coming home reassured them in their hope.
“I was the return on that investment,” Gross said.
He also spent time answering questions about his story, and discussing his disapproval of the U.S. embargo against Cuba. When asked about his opinion on Cuba’s transitioning government, he said that he knows most people would not appreciate his response.
“I’m not sure that democracy is what Cuba needs,” he said. “The changes have to be their way, not our way.”
Featured Image Courtesy of Desmond Boylan / AP Photo Exchange