Cuban Jewish leader knew imprisoned American

People make their way in front of the Capitol building early in the morning on a street in Havana, Cuba, Friday, Jan. 14, 2011. (AP Photo/Javier Galeano) AP

Havana, Cuba -- William Miller, until this fall vice-president of the Beth Shalom Temple told CBS News Thursday that he had met more than once with the American contractor who faces a possible 20-year sentence for crimes against the security of the Cuban state.

Alan Gross, a Potomac, Maryland native, goes on trial March 4, accused of allegedly smuggling in satellite communication devices prohibited under Cuban law. He has been jailed for the past 15 months.

Gross worked for a company that subcontracted a U.S. Agency for International Development program designed to bring about regime change in Cuba. The program dates back to the Bush Administration.

Miller ducked the question of whether he is going to be a prosecution witness, saying only, "I'm going to be there, I'm part of it."

Miller is the first member of Cuba's small Jewish community to admit knowing and talking to Gross.

"I know the person. I know exactly the person you're referring to," he said in a phone conversation with CBS.

"I met him at the Jewish community [the building housing Beth Shalom Temple, known as the Patronato, the largest Jewish community center in the country]. He came there more than once," Miller said responding to questions.

Adela Dworin, who took over as president of the Temple following the death of Miller's grandfather Jose Miller in 2006, had denied knowing Gross when asked shortly after the American's arrest in December 2009. More recently she told reporters that so many Americans come to the Temple, she simply didn't know if he had been one of them.

Miller said he won't speak on camera until after the trial, adding, "Let me tell you, the solution to the problem is coming very soon. It's complicated. It's hard even for me."

Asked what he meant, all Miller would say was, "Better for the government to explain everything."

Miller, formerly a constant presence at the Patronato, disappeared from the community in the early Fall. Asked what he has been doing, Miller said, "I've been very busy" working on unspecified "projects". Sources close to the community suggested he has been working with the prosecution to build the case against the 61-year old development worker.

When asked if Gross had offered him a B-gan (a satellite accessing device with internet and telephone capability), Miller speaking in English said, Gross "was trying to play a little bit about that. I was not sure what his real work was, what he was doing."

He also denied "personally" accepting any satellite equipment from the American. There has been some speculation that Miller had taken something from Gross and was going to be charged in the case.

U.S. demanding Gross's release

The United States is demanding that Cuba release Gross, saying he was only providing internet access to Jewish groups on the island so they could communicate with each other and with other Jews around the world and has committed no crimes.

Miller, however, insists that what Gross was doing had "absolutely nothing to do with the Jewish community."

Referring to a CBS shoot at the Patronato last September, Miller declared, "I was there when you were filming at the Community. You saw. We have computers. We have internet. We don't need persons like Alan Gross."

It's been implied that Miller's stepping down as vice-president of the Temple is intended to distance the religious community as a whole from the case.

In a meeting with some members of a delegation from the South Florida League of Women Voters Thursday afternoon, Dworin said the Jewish community "had the best of relations with the government" and stressed that they stayed out of politics. She mentioned President Raul Castro's recent visit to Beth Shalom, when wearing a yarmulke he lit the first of the Hanukkah candles. It was a visit interpreted by many observers as an attempt to show that the government was not allowing the Gross case to spill over onto Cuba's Jews.

Gross' wife Judy has begged the Cuban government to send her husband home on humanitarian grounds, even sending a letter expressing remorse for her husband's work directly to President Raul Castro last August. She was given permission to visit her husband in his prison cell in a Havana hospital last summer.

The Cuban government says U.S. consular officials--who have had access to Gross during his imprisonment--, his family and his family's lawyers will be allowed to attend the trial.

The Cuban legal system is modeled on the Spanish and usually involves a panel of judges rather than a jury. The press is nearly always denied access to court cases involving political crimes and there is no expectation that an exception will be made in this case.

The Cuban government views Washington's current programs to "develop civil society" on the island as just a continuation of the more than half a century long efforts to undermine the revolution brought to power by Fidel Castro in 1959. He led the country until 2006 when illness forced him to relinquish control to his brother Raul, formally elected president three years ago.

The U.S. State Department has said that Gross' imprisonment is a major obstacle to any improvement in relations between the two countries, which do not have diplomatic relations but simply maintain Interests Sections in each other's capital. But various Cuban analysts point out that while President Obama came to office talking about changing policy toward the communist island, he has not done much more than roll-back restrictive regulations to what they were in the Clinton era.

President Raul Castro has on more than one occasion said that nothing has changed in U.S. policy toward his country while the Obama White House remains totally behind the more than five-decades-old U.S. economic and trade embargo ( known here as the blockade) against the island.

  • CBSNews.com

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