By Suzanne Pollak
Senior Writer, Washington Jewish Week
Bethesda Jewish Congregation Rabbi Sunny Schnitzer returned Wednesday from a two-day trip to Cuba “saddened and disappointed Alan [Gross] did not come away in our care.”
Schnitzer was part of a three-member Joint Delegation of American Religious Leaders that participated in meetings with high level Cuban officials on Nov. 3 and 4 with the goal of freeing Alan Gross, the Potomac man serving a 15-year sentence in Cuba for crimes against the state.
Prior to his departure, Schnitzer said talks with the officials seemed more ambiguous than he could remember and therefore he had hoped Gross would be allowed to leave Cuba.
“We all feel this an especially auspicious time,” Schnitzer said, noting that the Summit of the Americas in Panama in April of 2015 creates “a window of opportunity.” Panama has invited Cuba to attend for the first time, and if there is any movement in negotiations to free Gross, it might be possible for officials from the United States and Cuban to meet and work things out, Schnitzer said.
Gross, 65, was arrested in December 2009 while in Cuba working as a subcontractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development. Gross was there to connect Cuba’s Jewish population to the Internet but was convicted in 2011.
Schnitzer, who represented the Cuban American Jewish Mission, was joined on the trip by Rev. John McCullough of Church World Service and Rev. Gradye Parsons of the Presbyterian Church.
The delegation, along with the Cuban Council of Churches, called for “the humanitarian release” of Gross and the Cuban Five. The Cuban government has insisted it will free Gross only if the United States frees the Cuban Five, three of whom have been in prison in the United States since 1998 following their convictions for espionage, conspiracy to commit murder and other charges. The other two have completed their prison sentences and returned to Cuba.
Freeing the Cubans still in American prisons “is the best and only way to get Alan out,” Schnitzer said. “The Cubans are waiting for this country, waiting for America, to engage” in talks, he said.
At the end of the trip, the delegation issued a joint statement. “Our common prayer is that by working together, we can help reunite these families and our countries.”
During the short visit, Schnitzer tried several times to visit Gross, but “Alan is not taking any visitors except his wife,” he said. However, he did learn that Gross, already in failing health, is having trouble walking due to “hip issues,” has difficulties with one eye and “lost another tooth.”
Since February, members of the delegation have met with members of Congress, the State Department and American religious leaders to pave the way for their two-day trip.
On Monday and Tuesday, the three men met with Cuban First Vice President Miguel Diaz-Canel, Chief of Mission, United States Interests Section Jeffrey DeLaurentis, Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez Parilla, Assistant Foreign Minister Josefina Vidal Ferrerio, Minister of Religions Caridad Diego Bello and Rene Gonzalez, one of the freed members of the Cuban Five.