Family members and friends of former U.S. government contractor Alan Gross urged President Barack Obama to personally secure his release on Tuesday, the fourth anniversary of his imprisonment in Cuba.
Gross was arrested on Dec. 3, 2009, while working on a U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) project to increase Internet access for small Jewish communities in Cuba. He was later sentenced to 15 years in prison for "acts against the independence or territorial integrity of the state."
Judy Gross, Alan’s wife, said Obama’s personal involvement might be the only avenue left to bring him home after four years of detention.
"I am requesting that President Obama, the leader of this great nation, get personally involved and to do whatever it takes to bring Alan home," she said at a vigil in front of the White House. "Mr. President, please don’t leave Alan to die in Cuba."
White House spokesman Jay Carney said on Tuesday that Obama has personally told foreign leaders to wield their influence with Cuba and free Gross. A statement from the State Department called on Cuba to "release Alan Gross and return him to his family, where he belongs."
However, speakers at the vigil warned that more calls for his unconditional release will likely continue to fall on deaf ears.
Rep. John Delaney (D., Md.) said the president must do more as dozens of attendees at the rally waved signs with pictures of Gross and chanted "Bring Alan Home!" A bipartisan group of 66 senators urged the president to "act expeditiously" and obtain Gross’ release in a letter last month.
"Alan’s not home so we’re not doing enough," Delaney said. "Sometimes one man’s life represents our fight for freedom, religious freedom, and liberty."
Gross, a 64-year-old Jewish American, was seized by Cuban authorities late at night in 2009 while working on the democracy-building project. He has since been held with rotating prisoners in a small cell, which he is only allowed to leave for one hour a day.
Gross has lost 110 pounds and suffers from arthritis. Yet he said in a letter to Obama on Tuesday that his worst afflictions are homesickness and a loss of faith in his government. While Gross has been behind bars in Cuba, his mother and one of his daughters have been battling cancer and his wife had to sell their home.
"As I reflect on these last four years, I find myself asking the same question—why? Why am I still here?" he wrote. "With the utmost respect, Mr. President, I fear that my government—the very government I was serving when I began this nightmare—has abandoned me."
The Obama administration has attempted to improve relations with Cuba by easing restrictions on travel there and directly negotiating on issues such as immigration and postal services.
However, Cuba’s communist government under Raul Castro continues to crack down on political dissent. Dissidents are routinely restricted from internal travel in Cuba, arbitrarily arrested and detained, and convicted with long prison sentences.
U.S. officials have said they hope the imminent release of a Cuban spy on parole might persuade the Castro regime to take action on Gross. Five Cuban spies were arrested in Florida in 1998 for monitoring Cuban exile organizations and U.S. military installations.
The Obama administration has faced additional criticism for its failure to obtain the release of Saeed Abedini, a U.S. pastor imprisoned in Iran for preaching Christianity. The American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) reported on Tuesday that Abedini’s health is deteriorating in Iran’s notorious Rajai Shahr prison, where he has been robbed at knifepoint and denied medication.
Gross said in his letter to Obama that his plea for freedom is about more than just him and his family.
"There are countless Americans all over the world, some serving in uniform, others serving in diplomatic or civilian capacities, still others private citizens studying or traveling abroad, and they must not harbor any doubt that if they are taken captive in a foreign land, our government will move heaven and earth to secure their freedom," he said.