HAVANA (AP) — More than a man’s fate will be at stake when U.S. contractor Alan Gross goes to trial Friday on charges he sought to undermine Cuba’s government by bringing communications equipment onto the island illegally.

U.S. officials have made clear that no meaningful rapprochement between the two Cold War enemies is possible while the 61-year-old Maryland native remains in jail. And with Gross facing a possible 20-year sentence for “acts against the integrity and independence” of Cuba, that could put relations into a long, deep freeze.

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“If they sentence him to 20 years and then put him in prison.  I think it will have a very damaging effect on US-Cuban relations,” said Wayne Smith, a former top U.S. diplomat in Havana and senior fellow at the Washington-based Center for International Policy.

Gross was working for the Bethesda-based Development Associates International on a USAID-program that promotes democracy when he was arrested in December 2009. He has been held since then in Havana’s maximum-security Villa Marista prison, most of that time without charge.

His family, and U.S. and company officials say he was bringing communications equipment to Cuba’s 1,500-strong Jewish community.

Cuban Jewish groups deny having anything to do with him, and there is even speculation that leaders of the Jewish community might testify against him.

Gross’ case will be decided by a panel of five black-robed magistrates — three of them professional, and two average Cuban citizens specially trained to decide cases who are impaneled for one month. A simple majority is enough to convict him.

The trial is expected to be over in a day or two, with a verdict announced immediately thereafter. Sentencing, should Gross be convicted, would likely come about two weeks later. Under Cuban law, he has the right to appeal any conviction, and can win a sentence reduction because he is more than 60 years old.

Calls for Gross’ release have poured in as the trial has approached, from the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who sent an open letter to Cuban President Raul Castro and offered to fly to Havana personally to mediate the case; and from Jewish groups including the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants, who say Gross was simply trying to help and had no idea what he was doing was in violation of Cuban law.

Gross’ wife Judy appealed to the Cuban government to let her husband go home on humanitarian grounds, saying in a written response to questions submitted by The Associated Press last week that Gross’ daughter and mother are both suffering from cancer, and that he has lost 90 pounds (40 kilos) in prison.

“He needs to be home. We need him and he needs us now more than ever,” she wrote. “I hope to have Alan home soon; that hope keeps me going.”

Many observers do see a way forward that would get Gross back to his family, and avoid a standoff between Havana and Washington.

They say Gross will likely be tried, convicted and sentenced to a long jail term — then quickly released on humanitarian grounds.

As recently as January, a senior U.S. State Department official said she had been given signals by the Cuban government that Gross would be sent home soon following a trial. American officials were taken aback when — a few weeks later — prosecutors said they were seeking a 20-year jail term.

Smith, the former U.S. diplomat, says he expects Cuba to “do the right thing” and release Gross after the trial. He said the stiff charge was to be expected and is not inconsistent with Gross being released.

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“It has to be a major charge. It’s not very magnanimous if you give him a three-year-sentence and then you waive it,” he said.

“But if it is a 20-year-sentence, then waiving it is magnanimous.”

Phil Peters, a longtime Cuba expert who is vice president of the Arlington, Virginia-based Lexington Institute, said he too saw Cuba freeing Gross soon.

“The odds are the guy is going to get convicted, that’s not hard to predict,” he said. “But I don’t believe that the Cuban government has an interest in holding him in jail for the long term.”

Peters said the proceedings are Cuba’s chance to shine a light on USAID-funded democracy-building efforts like the one Gross was working on, which Havana says aim to topple the government, ruled since 1959 by brothers Fidel and Raul Castro.

Washington spends more than $40 million a year on the programs, with USAID controlling most of that and doling out the work to subcontractors.

Development Associates International, or DAI, received $4.5 million in U.S. government funds for the program in which Gross was involved, and Gross reportedly was paid more than a half-million dollars himself, despite the fact he spoke little Spanish and had no history working in Cuba. Gross traveled to the island several times over a short period on a tourist visa, apparently raising Cuban suspicions.

While the democracy programs are lauded by some anti-Castro groups, others have criticized the use of expensive contractors to do work that exiles would be willing to perform for free, such as bringing in computers and mobile phones.

The programs have also been lambasted repeatedly in congressional reports as being wasteful and ineffective. In March 2010, Sen. John Kerry, a Democrat from Massachusetts, and Democratic Rep. Howard Berman, of California — both longtime critics of Washington’s 48-year trade embargo on Cuba — temporarily held up new funding in the wake of Gross’ arrest. The money has begun flowing again, though U.S. officials say DAI is no longer part of the program.

Cuban authorities have not spoken publicly about their case against Gross. But a video that surfaced days before the charges were announced indicates prosecutors will likely argue that the USAID programs amount to an attack on the island’s sovereignty.

The video features a Cuban Interior Ministry expert saying that Gross was seeking to build communications networks among the Cuban opposition. The expert also indicates that the government plans to use against Gross a statement his company made in his defense shortly after his arrest.

In the statement, DAI president James Bombard said Gross was not a spy, but acknowledged he was handing out “basic IT equipment such as cell phones and laptops” as part of a U.S.-government backed program.

“He says, ‘My man is not a spy. My man is not from the CIA,”‘ the Interior Ministry official says of Boomgard. “He says, ‘This is a man who was there because I have a contract with USAID to promote democracy in Cuba … to promote political competition, human rights, consensus building and strengthening civil society to help build a democratic government in Cuba.”‘

“That is to say, ‘He is not in the CIA, no, no, but he is a person I sent to Cuba with a contract to bring down the revolution.”‘

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(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)