U.S. Aid Worker Made Little Effort to Hide Work in Cuba

WASHINGTON (AP) -

The American aid worker who spent five years in prison in Cuba said he had no trouble bringing sophisticated communications gear into the country and made little attempt to disguise his work to set up internet connections.

In his most extensive comments since he was released in a prisoner swap last December, Alan Gross also said in an interview on CBS that he knew his work was placing him in danger, calling it a “cockamamie program” that arose from a failed diplomatic strategy.

Gross, 66, a communications specialist who has worked in more than 50 countries, made five trips to Cuba as a contractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development. He was arrested in late 2009 on accusations of spying, and was later convicted and sentenced to 15 years in prison. He was freed as part of a historic announcement that the U.S. would re-establish diplomatic relations with Cuba. His detention had been a sticking point in improving relations between the two countries.

Gross maintains that he went to Cuba to set up internet access for the communist island’s small Jewish community. A 2012 investigation by The Associated Press found he was using sensitive technology typically available only to governments, and the internet connections Gross was establishing were intended to bypass local restrictions and be hard for the government to trace.

He said he spotted a man who appeared to be following him and checking for radio transmissions during his third trip. Still, he returned two more times, assuming that since he was allowed to come and go, he wasn’t viewed as a threat.

While he was in prison, Gross lost more than 100 pounds, and five of his teeth fell out due to malnutrition. He went on hunger strikes and spoke at the time of wanting to end his life, he recalled.

“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.”