Alan Gross, the Ultimate Currency of Exchange / Iván García

Photo: Reuters. Alan Gross with his wife, Judy, during a visit to Jerusalem in Spring 2005.

He had bad luck, this American engineer with his nice grandfatherly face. December 3, 2009, as he was about to board a plane to the United States, he was arrested. And there he sits today.

After 14 months in detention without charges, through a brief note in the newspaper Granma, the people on the island learn that he will soon have his trial and the Prosecutor is asking for a sentence of 20 years for “acts against independence or territorial integrity.”

Alan Gross, 61 and Jewish, will be tried under Article 91 of the Cuban Penal Code, the same one used against the 74 dissidents tried in April 2003 who were sentenced to between 13 and 28 years imprisonment.

Independent Cuban journalists have barely written about his case. According to leaks, Gross had traveled to Cuba as a subcontractor of USAID (U.S. Agency for International Development), to bring modern equipment to the not very numerous Jewish community. There’s also speculation that he helped a group of dissidents. For more than 25 years, Alan Gross had dedicated himself to humanitarian work and development around the world.

In general, it’s not easy to access foreigners who, for one reason or another, are imprisoned on the island. But it’s nearly impossible when it’s an American who, from the beginning, the authorities have kept in isolation in a special prison regime.

The prosecutor’s request for 20 years could be reduced to 5 or 10 years. He could also be acquitted. But I doubt it. Gross is valuable exchange currency for the Castro brothers, in particular for Fidel, who already said last December, to several intellectuals, that the “Five Heroes” or the “Five Spies” (depending on your point of view), would soon be home.

The detention of Alan Gross has been a source of fiction between the governments of Cuba and the United States. For the regime in Havana, it’s become a question of honor and an obsession, to get the five agents out of prison.

Accustomed as they are, on the island, to the president’s being able to decide when a person should enter or leave prison, they think Obama’s signature would be enough to spring their “heroic spies.”

And as things don’t work like that in the United States, Alan Gross could become the man who would permit them to negotiate a trade. Five for one.

February 6 2011