Cuba Jewish groups deny work with jailed American

News from Cuba | Thursday, 2 December 2010

By Peter Orsi for the Associated Press

The leaders of Cuba's two main Jewish groups both denied having worked with a jailed American contractor whose family says he was on the island to hand out communication equipment to Jewish organizations.

Cuban authorities have accused Alan Gross of espionage, though they have not pressed charges despite keeping him in custody since he was detained last Dec. 3.

Adela Dworin, president of Havana's Temple Beth Shalom and Cuba's largest Jewish organization, the Jewish Community House, told The Associated Press on Wednesday it's possible Gross came to the center as one of "hundreds" of foreign visitors it receives each year. But she said she doesn't remember meeting him and he certainly was not doing any work with her group.

Dr. Mayra Levy, president of the Hebrew Sephardic Center of Cuba, said the same thing: "I never saw him. He never came here."

Cuba's tightly knit Jewish community is believed to number about 1,500 people, most of whom live in Havana and belong to one of those two groups. While it is possible Gross was working with one of the other Jewish groups scattered across the island, the other organizations represent very small numbers of people.

"As far as I know, none of the three synagogues (in Havana) authorized any such activity," Dworin said.

Gross' wife, Judy, has denied that her husband was a spy and says he is a veteran development worker who was helping members of Cuba's Jewish community use the Internet to stay in contact with each other and with similar groups abroad. Communications equipment he brought with him was intended for humanitarian purposes, not for use by the dissident community, she said.

Dworin said many visitors bring donations - medicine for a community pharmacy, books, DVDs, computer games, food for religious festivals - but she stressed that the group would not accept any contraband equipment, or even have need for it.

"We have all the necessary media to communicate with the entire Jewish world," Dworin said. "We are able to communicate freely."

"We respect the laws of the country where we were born," she added.

The detained man, a native of Potomac, Maryland, was working for a firm contracted by USAID when he was arrested. Senior Cuban leaders including President Raul Castro have accused Gross of spying.

Cuba and the United States have been at odds since shortly after Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution, and the U.S. has maintained an economic embargo on the island for 48 years. Havana criticizes USAID for seeking to promote democratic change in Cuba, saying it uses millions of dollars to bankroll opposition activity.

In August, Cuba allowed Judy Gross to visit her husband for the first time since his arrest.

U.S. diplomats insist Gross was not doing anything wrong and have said his continued detention makes it difficult to improve relations.

Gloria Berbena, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, which Washington maintains instead of an embassy, said consular officials last visited Gross in jail Nov. 16. She said that "unfortunately," she knew of no new developments in his case.

The Cuban government did not respond to requests for comment on the case. Officials have said previously the case is working its way through the legal system and there is nothing unusual about the long period Gross has spent in jail without charge.

Also Wednesday, a group of Cuban religious leaders who traveled to the United States last week for a religious conference said Washington officials asked them for help in Gross' case.

The leaders said the matter was raised during meetings with Peter Brennan, counselor for Cuban affairs in the State Department, and Dan Restrepo, President Barack Obama's point man on Latin America at the National Security Council.

Rev. Oden Marichal, secretary of the Council of Cuban Churches, an umbrella organization encompassing non-Roman Catholic Christian churches and the Jewish community, said the visitors agreed to help but would not intervene as negotiators.

"What we made clear to them is that the Jewish community in Cuba ... told us: 'We never had ties with that gentleman, he never brought us any kind of equipment,'" Marichal said.

The leaders also presented a petition seeking the release of the "Cuban Five" - five Cuban agents convicted of spying and sentenced to long jail terms in the United States.

Cuba maintains the men were not a threat to the U.S. and were only keeping watch on anti-Castro groups that it accuses of a number of violent acts, including a 1990s hotel bombing campaign in Havana.

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