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Cuba jails US citizen Alan Gross

US subcontractor gets 15-year jail term in Cuba. Can Washington spring him?

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Cubans waiting to use the internet are reflected on the window while others go online use in an internet cafe in Havana, on February 7, 2011. U.S. citizen Alan Gross was sentenced to 15 years in jail for attempting to set up a satellite dish to allow unfettered access to the internet for Cuba's small Jewish community. (Stringer/AFP/Getty Images)

HAVANA, Cuba — A decade ago, child castaway Elian Gonzalez was the singular focus of U.S.-Cuba relations, a six-year-old boy who became a proxy for the bitter divisions between Cuban families and the two Cold War foes.

Today the countries are locked once again in a custody battle, only this time the prize is a bearded 61-year-old American aid worker, Alan Gross. On Saturday, a week after his two-day trial, Cuban state media announced that Gross had been handed a 15-year prison term for trying to topple the Castro government by setting up “communications systems outside the control of authorities.”

Gross can hardly claim to be as innocent as Elian — though apparently not by much.

Gross spoke little Spanish and had no experience working in Cuba prior to his arrival, but he received $585,000 to carry out projects on the island for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), which budgets $20 million a year “to promote a free and democratic society,” and “advocate for fundamental freedoms and free market-oriented solutions to meet the needs of Cuban citizens,” according to the agency’s web site.

Cuban authorities have long viewed such language as tantamount to calls for regime change, and the island’s ever-vigilant security agents took notice when Gross began making repeated trips to Cuba as a tourist. They arrested him in December 2009, as he tried to install satellite internet equipment that the U.S. government and his family insist were meant to give unfiltered web access to Cuba’s small Jewish community.

Gross has been through a wrenching ordeal since then, stuck in a Cuban jail cell while his 26-year-old daughter was diagnosed with breast cancer and had to undergo a double mastectomy. His 88-year-old mother is now sick with lung cancer. Gross’s wife said her husband has lost 90 pounds in his cell. Gross’s family was “devastated by the verdict and harsh sentence,” according to his American lawyer, Peter J. Kahn.

Gross can appeal his punishment to Cuba’s highest court, but if the sentence is upheld, the U.S. government will face the delicate task of trying to wrest him free from a country it has been at odds with since shortly after Fidel Castro came to power in 1959.

The Obama Administration has already ruled out swapping Gross for members of the Cuban Five, a team of Cuban intelligence agents serving long sentences in U.S. federal prisons who Havana champions as anti-terrorism heroes.

On Saturday U.S. officials reacted angrily to Gross’s sentence, calling the 15-year term “appalling.”

“He is guilty of nothing more than caring for the Jewish community and the people of Cuba,” said Gloria Berbena, spokesperson for the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana, adding that the Cuba government “seeks to criminalize what most of the world deems normal — in this case, access to information and technology.”