U.S. contractor held in Cuba begins a hunger strike


WASHINGTON — Alan Gross, a former contractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development who has been imprisoned in Cuba for four years, announced today that he has begun a hunger strike to help him win his freedom.

Gross, who was arrested by Cuban authorities in 2009 and accused of being a U.S. spy, has denied working for any intelligence agency. He is calling on Cuba to release him and is demanding that President Barack Obama get involved in his case.

“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,” Gross said in a statement released today.

Scott Gilbert, Gross’ attorney, also criticized USAID for recent reports that revealed that the agency tried to secretly create a Twitter-like communication system called ZunZuneo in Cuba even as Gross was incarcerated.

“Once Alan was arrested, it is shocking that USAID would imperil his safety even further by running a covert operation in Cuba,” Gilbert said in the statement. “USAID has made one absurdly bad decision after another. Running this program is contrary to everything we have been told by high-level representatives of the Obama administration about USAID’s activities in Cuba.”

White House officials have said the ZunZuneo project, which was revealed last week by The Associated Press, was not a covert operation. Rajiv Shah, the director of USAID, testified on Capitol Hill today about the program.

Gross, 64, was sentenced to 15 years in prison in 2011 after working for the U.S. agency to secretly provide Internet access to the island’s Jewish community, circumventing Cuban government censors in the process. He was accused of distributing satellite and computer equipment without the proper permits.

White House officials have long called on the Cuban government to release Gross. Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, urged Cuba to release Gross in December, on the fourth anniversary of his arrest.

But Gross and his wife expressed frustration with Obama and the U.S. government, saying that they have not done enough to try to free him. In the statement, they said Gross was confined to a small cell for 23 hours a day and was in failing health.