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Transcript: Alan Gross interviewed by Jorge Ramos on March 21, 2016

Interview with Alan Gross, former USAID contractor and Cuban prisoner on 'Al Punto con Jorge Ramos'
24 Mar 2016 – 10:23 AM EDT

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Below is the transcript of Univision’s interview with Alan Gross. If you would like the interview in Spanish or have any questions, please contact Jose Zamora:


Program: Al Punto with Jorge Ramos

Content: Interview with Alan Gross, former USAID contractor and Cuban prisoner

Interview Date: Monday, March 21, 2016


JR: Jorge Ramos

AG: Alan Gross

JR: Thanks so much for talking to us.

AG: My pleasure.

JR: President Barack Obama right now as we speak, he is in Cuba. When you see a U.S. President for the first time in 88 years over there, what are you thinking?

AG: This is a big deal. It’s a very big deal. I think that President Obama made a courageous decision, not only to bring me home, but what that represented as a pivotal point in relations between the United States and Cuba. And frankly, in all fairness, so did President Raul Castro. And so now I think that President Obama is trying to manage the risk of that decision by going to Cuba and by presenting himself primarily to the people of Cuba. And if he can bring something, hopefully tangible, back that President Castro gives him, then that would be beyond any expectations.

JR: I’m a little surprised that you’re calling Raul Castro, President Castro.

AG: Well, I’ve called him a few other things and over the last 5 years. I want to specify or differentiate between he and his brother. Because his brother never learned any better, but I think Raul did. And it’s a conundrum because it’s difficult to forgive somebody for past deeds that were terrible. At the same time, however, he’s the most pragmatic person, leader in the government of Cuba right now. He - I don’t know if he knows how to get things done that he wants to get done. But he wants to accomplish a number of things before his retirement in 2018.

JR: But you were detained in 2009.

AG: Yes.

JR: Back then already Raul Castro was in control of the government in Cuba. In other words, he decided, he made the decision, the conscious decision that you should stay arrested.

AG: Well, I don’t know that it was his decision alone. And the reason I say that is because I was visited by former President Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn. And when President Carter visited with me he said that he had met with Raul Castro the night before, and they had a conversation that I’ll paraphrase. It went something like this: Jimmy, I know Alan is not a spy. And Jimmy says to Raul, well, you know, I’ve got my plane here, let me take him home with me. And Raul said, Jimmy, if I do that, they’ll run me out of town on a rail. Now does that sound like somebody who’s in total control? And to me it doesn’t.

JR: So maybe it was Fidel Castro. And…

AG: No, I don’t think so. I don’t think Fidel has any role at this point.

JR: Really?

AG: I don’t think he has any influence at this point. He’s an icon in that government. He is a broken icon among most of the people of Cuba. And I really don’t think he has much involvement at all.

JR: So this is really interesting, because if what you are saying is true, that Fidel has no power right now. And Raul didn’t decide on making…

AG: No.

JR: Yeah, making sure that, that you were going to stay. Then who’s making those decisions?

AG: Well, I think it’s a committee. I think the government of Cuba is splintered into four factions, at least. The pragmatists that would be led by Raul. The hard-liners, and I have no idea who would be leading them. The criminalists, who are criminals. And the military. And they’re all trying to desperately hold onto their slice of a disintegrating piece of pie. And they all know that they’re not going to make it. Not all of them will. They don’t know who will and who won’t. And so they have their own agendas. And they’re making decisions according to their own interests.

JR: Do you think that your liberation was part of a larger strategy to normalize relations between the U.S. and Cuba?

AG: On who’s part?

JR: That you were, well, probably on both parts. But that you were somehow used for a diplomatic purpose.

AG: Well, I was used alright. I was used alright. Not initially for a diplomatic purpose. I was a dupe. I was a pawn. And I think that when the government of Cuba found out that I was working under a USAID contract, they wanted to poke Uncle Sam in the eye. And then after that they realized, well, maybe we can get some leverage out of this situation, and get our guys back, our intelligence officers back. And they thought that they would make a trade right away. Unfortunately, my government didn’t, I mean unfortunately I wasn’t a spy. If I’d have been a spy, they would have trade me, I’d be home in two weeks. But my government couldn’t get its hands around the idea of trading a non-spy for 3, let alone 5 spies. It was apples and oranges. And it said to me something very disturbing. And that was my citizenship in the United States was less important than the lives of criminals from another country. And I was pretty upset about that. I thought that my government was going to spring me. Was going to get me out a lot sooner than they did. But they didn’t. And it took a lot of work and strategizing. And ultimately the decision to bring me home was made in the Oval Office.

JR: When did you realize that for the Cuban government you were a spy?

AG: When did I realize it? That I wasn’t a… I knew I wasn’t a spy. I was never a spy.

JR: No, no. But for them, for the Cuban government.

AG: But they always knew I wasn’t a spy. Any idiot would have known I wasn’t a spy. What person in his right mind from the intelligence community would go to a Spanish speaking country, and not speak the language. I mean that has to be a comedy. Really!

JR: You were in Cuba five times, right?

AG: I was there five times that year. And I was working to establish broadband connectivity. And I did, it was a technical project. Unfortunately, it was…

JR: To establish Internet, right.

AG: Internet.

JR: …for the Jewish community in Cuba.

AG: Yes, three communities.

JR: Was that illegal for the Cuban government? Was that illegal what you were doing? Did you have to request a permission to do what you were doing?

AG: No. I came in to the airport with this equipment. And I was inspected by the security at the airport, and by customs. They went through everything, everything.

JR: So they knew, they knew what you were bringing.

AG: And they said, what’s this for? I said, it’s for a computer network. And they said, where? And I said, at the synagogue in Havana in Vedado. And they said, okay. And that was it. They looked at my underwear. They looked at every piece of paper that I had. And if there was something wrong with any of the equipment, I would have left it with them at the airport, and gone home.

JR: Were you trying to promote Democracy in Cuba?

AG: No. I was trying to promote access to information, broadband Internet connectivity.

JR: Would that be construed as having a political agenda. In other words, that you wanted to promote Democracy.

AG: No.

JR: Change, or a regime change.

AG: I’m going to conquer Cuba all by myself, right? 3 billion people log on every day around the world. Now if it’s okay for 3 billion people, 11.3 million won’t make that much difference, would it?

JR: Yeah, but…

AG: I’ve been logging on since 1983. My experience…

JR: Do you still have an AOL account?

AG: Actually I didn’t like, I shouldn’t say that.

JR: It’s okay.

AG: It’s okay. I didn’t like AOL. I always, I signed up with one provider. And I’d keep the service for 6 months, and then I’d switch to a different provider. And that got to be a pain in the neck. So I registered my own domain, in case I had to switch again. At least I don’t have to change my e-mail address.

JR: When I saw you for the first time just a few minutes ago, you look incredibly happy.

AG: I am.

JR: Yeah, of course. You have a granddaughter now. But then you told me: “I gained weight.”

AG: Yes.

JR: And you’re so happy about that too, right. Because when you were in prison, you had lost 110 pounds.

AG: Correct, correct.

JR: Did you feel you were going to die in jail?

AG: No, I never thought I was going to die there. I always knew that I would go home. I was getting impatient towards the end. The last year, I was becoming very impatient. And then when I thought I was going to go home, the story with Eric Bergdahl broke.

JR: Yes.

AG: And that probably pushed me back about six months. And so I decided with my, not with my lawyer. My lawyer didn’t wasn’t part of the decision. My wife wasn’t part of the decision. I wanted to bring a greater intensity to my situation for both governments. And so in April of 2014 I started what I called a fast. Not a hunger strike, a fast. And I didn’t eat anything for nine days. And I…

JR: Only drank water?

AG: I drank water, and I took my multivitamin, and my Vitamin D, and that was it.

JR: Could you describe to us the place where you stayed for almost five years.

AG: Well, most of the time I was in a concrete building that was a prison on the campus of a military hospital, Carlos J. Finlay Hospital Militar. And…

JR: Windows, no windows?

AG: There was one window that we weren’t allowed to look through. If any of my compañeros would climb up on the bed to look at the window, one of the guards would come by and yell at him, and tell him to get down. I didn’t, ‘cause I didn’t feel like climbing up on the bed to look out the window. ‘Cause what was I going to look at?

JR: As we speak, it is Raul Castro who’s talking right now? And President Barack Obama is right there. Do you think that Raul Castro and Barack Obama are talking right now, because of what happened to you?

AG: No. I think that I was a catalyst in the process. But if it hadn’t been me, it would have been something else. I might have moved up the timeframe by being arrested.

JR: But the fact that you’re liberated. And that five Cuban spies were exchanged. Didn’t that allow for this to happen, Raul Castro and Barack Obama talking?

AG: I think they used it as a target. The target date for pursuing a path to normalized relations occurred on the date that the prisoners were exchanged. And so the prisoners weren’t part of the decision, they were a catalyst in helping the leaders make that decision. I don’t want to say that, I don’t want to make the role that I played more important than it actually was. At the same time, I don’t want to sell myself short. It does bring me some sense of satisfaction that these activities are taking place today. Someone asked me if I thought it was worth it? And all I can say is, we’ll have to see. “Nosotros veremos.”

JR: “Nosotros veremos.” We’ll see.

AG: We’ll have to see.

JR: And that’s my next question. Openly the U.S. government hasn’t said that they want regime change. They can’t do that, otherwise they wouldn’t be meeting with Raul Castro, right? But do you think that behind everything in closed doors, they’re saying, yes, of course. We just got to establish a relationship with Cuba because at the end what we really want is Democracy. Respect for human rights, freedom of the press.

AG: I don’t know what’s motivating the U.S. government to do anything? I don’t know what motivated the U.S. government to be irresponsible in the way they contracted me to do my job. I don’t know what motivated the government of Cuba to arbitrarily detain me for five years. I was arbitrarily detained, according to the United Nations. And I just simply don’t know. And I don’t know how important that is. I think what’s important is that we’re moving forward, that there’s a, not a regime change, there’s a change of wind. The air is changing, the relationship is changing. There’s a much more positive and constructive relationship that’s evolving through constructive engagement, of the type that didn’t take place for 55 years.

JR: Do you think the U.S. government misled you when they hired you to do this job in Cuba?

AG: I think the contractor that hired me, that contracted me, did. And…

JR: Misled you?

AG: Yes, I was misled. For example, and I’ll mention the prime example. It is illegal to distribute anything in Cuba that’s funded in full or in part by the U.S. government. Had I known that, I would not have done the project.

JR: Because obviously the computer system was paid by the U.S. government.

AG: Yes, my time was paid by the U.S. government. My transportation was paid by the U.S. government. And frankly, I’ve never been in trouble with the law anywhere in the world. And there’s a reason for that. I’m a good citizen. I’m one of the good guys. It’s not my job to go to any country and violate the laws of any country, whether it’s on behalf of a U.S. government or not.

JR: So what you’re saying is that you did violate the Cuban law.

AG: Yes, I did. I did not do this knowingly. But I did break that law. And that is punishable by eight years in maximum security. Well, I got a bonus.

JR: . Five.

AG: 15 years.

JR: Would you go back to Cuba?

AG: In a heartbeat.

JR: Really?

AG: Absolutamente. ¿Por qué no? (Absolutely, why not?)

JR: Well, because of exactly the experience that you lived. Because you spent time in prison, because you saw firsthand what it is not to have your human rights respected.

AG: I’ll tell you. A lot of people ask me the same question. And I was at a program I was a guest speaker at. And I spoke, we did a Q&A afterwards. And the question came up, and it was mostly a Cuban-American group. And so somebody asked me the question. And I said, in a heartbeat. And he said, how can you think about going? And I said, excuse me, but are you Cuban-American? Yes. Did you, were you born in Cuba? Yes. Did you and your family lose something? We lost everything. And you’re living in the United States now. Have you returned to Cuba? Well, yes I have, of course, I have. Well, why? How could you return to Cuba? I have family there. Well, now so do I.

JR: Yeah.

AG: “Tengo familia en Cuba ahora.” (I now have family in Cuba).

JR: “¿Quién?” Who?

AG: “¿Quién?” Who?

JR: Yes, in Cuba?

AG: “Todos los compañeros y sus familias.” (All of my cellmates and their families).

JR: They’re your family?

AG: “Absolutamente.” (Absolutely).

JR: Who are they? I don’t know if you can say names, but…

AG: I’d rather not name anyone.

JR: Alright, it’s okay, I understand.

AG: Most of I knew.

JR: How many?

AG: Well, I met about 20 people. We had two cellmates at a time. So there were three of us in the cell.

JR: And they’re your family now.

AG: Absolutely. There’s one that lives in Hialeah. He’s my brother. And we made an oath to each other that when we were free we would go to Versailles Restaurant. Here’s your commercial. Versailles Restaurant in Little Havana.

JR: Versailles.

AG: And we got together, his family was there. My lawyer and his wife was there, and I was there. And we had a wonderful reunion, wonderful. He served 14 years in a Cuban prison. He’s the hero of this story.

JR: Did you speak Spanish with them or English?

AG: Spanglish. Or Spanglish.

JR: You know, I’m so surprised that I don’t see any resentment in you. No hatred.

AG: For whom? For the government of Cuba?

JR: For the Cuban government, for what they did to you.

AG: I’m not fond of the government of Cuba. But, you know, what they did is their problem now, not mine. ‘Cause I’m a free man. They’re still there. They still live there. They still live in their system. They still have their pathologies. They still have their problems. Both Presidents are trying to present an opportunity to outgrow those pathologies and problems. And President Obama has given the people of Cuba the hope of opportunity. Not opportunity, not yet. “Aún no.”

JR: “Aún no.”

AG: The hope, “esperanza de oportunidad.” And I think it’s there. I really think it’s there.

JR: One final question. If you had a chance to talk to Raul Castro what would that exchange sound like?

AG: Well, I had an opportunity to study a lot of the economic data of Cuba, and demographic data for Cuba. And I would have, as most of my career; I’ve worked in export and investment development. And I would have some suggestions that he should consider on how to restructure his government without changing the complexion, without changing the spirit of his government. Not that I would want to do it.

JR: Sure.

AG: Or that anyone else should do it. They have to do it themselves. It’s like the social worker. How many social workers does it take to change a light bulb? And the answer is, none. The light bulb has to want to change itself.

JR: What do you learn from this experience? What’s that final lesson?

AG: Oh boy. The final lesson is don’t take anything at face value ever again. I made a terrible, terrible mistake in my excitement about working on a beautiful island, what I thought was a beautiful island, and it is. And working with the Jewish community there, which I have done in many other countries. I should have done more due diligence, and not accept things at face value. I should have known better. And I didn’t. Am I sorry for the entire experience? No, I’m not. I’m happier now than I’ve ever been in my life. The five years in the timeline of my life is only five years. I mean five years is significant. But I’ll be 67 in a month and a-half. And five years out of 67 is a short period of time. And I hope to be able to go back and play my mandolin in the street.

JR: Thank you so much for talking to us.

AG: Thank you.

JR: I really appreciate it.

AG: My pleasure, thank you.

JR: Thank you.


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