Alan Gross, newly released after five years in a Cuban prison, thanked his wife, his lawyer, the Jewish community, President Obama and numerous others in helping secure his freedom.
Speaking at a news conference Wednesday in Washington, Gross opened his statement with a Hanukkah greeting and a thank you to Obama.
“Chag sameach,” he said. “”So far it’s the best Hanukkah that I’ll be celebrating for a long time. What a blessing to be a citizen of the United States of America. Thank you President Obama for everything you have done today.”
He credited the advocacy by his wife of 44 years, Judy Gross, and his lawyer, Scott Gilbert, for getting him out of prison. He also thanked the Jewish community.
“To the Washington Jewish community, Ron Halber in particular and his staff at the Jewish Community Relations Council, all of the executive directors, staff and volunteers of participating JCRCs, federations, synagogues, schools, and other Jewish, Christian and Muslim organizations nationwide, God bless you and thank you,” Gross said. “It was crucial to my survival knowing that I was not forgotten. Your prayers and actions have been comforting, reassuring, and sustaining.”
In a deal that American officials said was technically separate from Gross’ release, the United States and Cuba agreed to exchange the three remaining incarcerated members of the “Cuban Five,” a Florida-based spy ring, for an American spy held in Cuba for 20 years and whose identity remains a secret. It came, too, as the United States and Cuba agreed to re-establish full diplomatic ties that were severed in early 1961.
Gross, a Jewish-American who had been in detention in Cuba for five years of a 15-year term for crimes against the state, originally went to the island nation to do contract work for the U.S. government and help connect Cuban Jews to the outside world.
He suffered health problems during his imprisonment, and in his statement referenced his significant weight loss and the loss of some teeth.
“Ultimately, the decision to arrange for and secure my release was made in the Oval Office. To President Obama and the NSC staff, thank you,” Gross said. “A judicious lesson that I have learned from this experience is that freedom is not free.”
Gross expressed fondness for the Cuban people, saying they were not responsible for his ordeal and that he is pained “to see them treated so unjustly as one consequence of two governments’ mutually belligerent policies.”
He hailed Obama’s announcement that Havana and Washington now would resume diplomatic relations. e tarmac at the base, where he was met by a crowd.
Secretary of State John Kerry met with Gross shortly after he landed at Andrews Air Force Base from Cuba on Wednesday, the State Department said.
Kerry, who worked with his Cuban counterpart and Vatican officials to secure the release of Gross, was able to welcome him home and “express his overwhelming happiness that Alan Gross is now free and reunited with his family on American soil,” the department said in a statement.
The meeting was unplanned, the statement said, and came about since Kerry was returning from Europe at about the same time that Gross was arriving from Cuba.
Cuba arrested Gross, now 65, on Dec. 3, 2009, and later convicted the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) subcontractor to 15 years in prison for importing banned technology and trying to establish clandestine Internet service for Cuban Jews.
The United States and Cuba have been locked in hostilities for more than half a century, and Obama is sure to face howls of protest in Washington and within the Cuban exile community in Miami for freeing the Cuban intelligence agents after 16 years in prison. Their freedom will be hailed as a resounding victory at home for Raul Castro.
The payoff for Obama was the release of Gross, whose lawyer and family have described him as mentally vanquished, gaunt, hobbling and missing five teeth.
Cuba arrested Gross in 2009 and later sentenced him to 15 years for attempting to establish clandestine Internet service for Cuban Jews under a program run by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). His case raised alarms about USAID’s practice of hiring private citizens to carry out secretive assignments in hostile places.
Cuba considers USAID another instrument of continual U.S. harassment dating to the 1959 revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power. Fidel Castro retired in 2008, handing power to his brother Raul.
The United States has said it wants to promote democracy in communist-led Cuba, a one-party state that represses political opponents and controls the media. American officials accused Cuba of taking Gross hostage as a ploy to get their spies back.
The three Cuban intelligence agents, jailed since 1998, are
Gerardo Hernandez, 49, Antonio Guerrero, 56, and Ramon Labañino, 51. Two others had been released before on completing their sentences - Rene Gonzalez, 58, and Fernando Gonzalez, 51.
CHANGE IN RELATIONS?
The so-called Cuban Five were convicted for spying on anti-Castro exile groups in Florida and monitoring U.S. military installations. They are hailed as anti-terrorist heroes in Cuba for defending the country by infiltrating exile groups in Florida at a time when anti-Castro extremists were bombing Cuban hotels.
Two were due to be released in coming years but Gerardo Hernandez, the leader, received a double life sentence for conspiracy in Cuba’s shooting down of two U.S. civilian aircraft in 1996, killing four Cuban-Americans.
The United States had flatly refused to swap Gross for the agents, but the White House came under increasing pressure to intervene from Gross’ allies and foreign policy experts as Gross’ health deteriorated.
Gross had already lost some 100 pounds (46 kg) when he went on a five-day hunger strike in April, and upon his 65th birthday in May he vowed to die rather than turn 66 in prison.
Gross’ release could lead Obama to begin normalizing relations with Cuba, which would stir fierce opposition from well-financed and politically organized Cuban exiles, who resist engagement with the communist-led island.
Although Obama said “we have to continue to update our policies” on Cuba over a year ago, until now he had yet to signal change.
The president has authority to unilaterally gut the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba and allow U.S. citizens to travel freely to the island. His State Department can remove Cuba from a list of state sponsors of terrorism, an outdated designation that carries with it further economic sanctions.
Proponents of normalization note that Cuba has blamed the embargo for its economic shortcomings for decades and uses U.S. aggression as justification for stifling dissent.
Despite bilateral animosity, the two countries have been quietly engaged on a host of issues such as immigration, drug interdiction and oil-spill mitigation.