WASHINGTON (AP) - An American who has been imprisoned in Cuba for more than four years after illegally setting up Internet access on the island is on a hunger strike, according to a statement his lawyer released Tuesday.
Gross was arrested in Cuba in 2009 while working in the Communist-run country to set up Internet access for the island’s small Jewish community, access that bypassed local restrictions and monitoring. At the time, Gross was working as a subcontractor for the U.S. government’s U.S. Agency for International Development, which promotes democracy on the island. Cuba considers USAID’s programs illegal attempts by the U.S. to undermine its government, and Gross was tried and sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Cuban officials initially accused Gross of spying, though more recent statements have said he set up “illegal and covert communication systems” and was sentenced for breaking Cuban laws. His case has become a sticking point in improving ties between the two countries, which have not had formal diplomatic relations since 1961.
“I am fasting to object to mistruths, deceptions, and inaction by both governments, not only regarding their shared responsibility for my arbitrary detention, but also because of the lack of any reasonable or valid effort to resolve this shameful ordeal. Once again, I am calling on President Obama to get personally involved in ending this standoff so that I can return home to my wife and daughters,” Gross‘ statement read.
The Cuban government did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Gross‘ hunger strike comes as U.S. and Cuban officials have questioned a different USAID program on the island. Last week, an Associated Press investigation revealed that USAID secretly created a “Cuban Twitter” communications network to stir unrest on the island. The social media network, called ZunZuneo, was publicly launched shortly after Gross was arrested. It reached at least 40,000 subscribers before being shut down in 2012 when a government grant ended.
Gross‘ lawyer, Scott Gilbert, said Tuesday afternoon after speaking with his client that learning about the ZunZuneo story was the “final straw” that prompted Gross‘ hunger strike. Gilbert, who criticized USAID for launching the ZunZuneo program after his client was arrested, said Gross is not eating but is drinking water. He has lost about 10 pounds so far, Gilbert said, though overall he has lost more than 100 pounds while in prison.
Gilbert said Tuesday afternoon that he asked his client how long he plans to continue not eating and was told “as long as it takes.”
USAID’s top official, Rajiv Shah, testified Tuesday before a Senate subcommittee. Responding to questions from Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who called the ZunZuneo program a “cockamamie idea,” Shah said it was “absolutely not” covert. Shah said creating platforms to improve communication in Cuba and elsewhere is a “core part” of what USAID does.
Shah called Gross‘ detention “wrong” but said “the responsibility for his detention rests with Cuban authorities.”
Gross‘ wife, Judy Gross, wrote Tuesday that she was “worried sick” about her husband’s health and she doesn’t think “he can survive much more of this.”
Associated Press writer Peter Orsi contributed to this report from Havana.