Alan Gross Recounts Cuban Imprisonment

Jewish American contractor Alan Gross thought every day about his family that survived the Holocaust, exercised religiously and found something to laugh at to survive his five-year imprisonment at a Cuban Jail.

For the first time since his release last December – as part of a landmark deal with Cuba – Gross spoke extensively about his time in Cuba in an interview with CBS’ “60 Minutes” on Sunday.

“They threatened to hang me. They threatened to pull out my fingernails. They said I’d never see the light of day. I had to do three things in order to survive, three things every day. I thought about my family that survived the Holocaust. I exercised religiously every day. And I found something every day to laugh at,” he told Scott Pelley.

Gross was a government contractor employed by United States Agency for International Development (USAID). USAID had won a $6 million U.S. government contract for a controversial “democracy-promotion program” to provide communications equipment to break the Cuban government’s ‘information blockade. Gross received more than $500,000 to set up the internet and to deliver computer and satellite equipment to three Jewish community groups, traveling to Cuba four times in five months in 2009 on a tourist visa. “I knew exactly what I was doing. I was setting up Internet connectivity for the Jewish community in Cuba. It was very simple, get ’em connected. That was it,” Gross said.

He went to Cuba for a fifth time in late November 2009 on a follow-up trip researching how the groups were making use of the equipment he had previously distributed to them and was arrested 11 days later. He spent the first night and most of the next five years at the Carlos Finlay Military Hospital. In Havana, Gross was held in a room 18 feet by 18 with two other prisoners. Every day, for the first year, he was interrogated. “It was terrible. There was, it was a time of sensory deprivation for me, especially that first year. The place was infested with ants and roaches,” he recalled. “I didn’t have any meat, really, for five years.”

Towards the end of his five years in jail, Gross went on a hunger strike and warned his family that “it will be my last birthday here.” In December 2014, Gross got a short phone call from his wife, Judy. “And she said, ‘Alan, we’re never gonna talk like this again. You get it?’ I got it. I got it. I got it,” he told Pelley. “She was very clear in her wording in her verbiage that I was coming home.”

The departure from Cuba happened to fall on the first day of Hanukkah, and the Air Force crew provided him with potato latkes (pancakes) and a corned beef sandwich. But as he was up to the second half of the sandwich, Gross said, he was told President Obama was on the phone. “I looked at the sandwich. And I looked at the flight attendant. ‘Oh, OK,'” he recounted in an unaired segment of the program. When Alan and Judy met with Obama after the State of the Union, the president “commented that he was sorry that it took so long,” Gross said, “And I said, ‘Better late than never.'”

Gross said that the last words he told his captors were: “Hasta la vista, baby.”

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