Americas

With prisoner release, a momentous shift in U.S.-Cuba relations

Anita Kumar

| McClatchy Washiington Bureau

In this Dec. 3, 2013 file photo, supporters of Alan Gross, on poster at left, mark his fourth year in a Cuban prison with a protest in Lafayette Park, across from the White House in Washington, D.C.
In this Dec. 3, 2013 file photo, supporters of Alan Gross, on poster at left, mark his fourth year in a Cuban prison with a protest in Lafayette Park, across from the White House in Washington, D.C. AP

Cuba has released American contractor Alan Gross, who had been imprisoned for five years, a senior Obama administration official said Wednesday.

Gross has departed Cuba on a U.S. government plane bound for the United States.

“Gross was released on humanitarian grounds by the Cuban government at the request of the United States,” said the official, who is knowledgeable about the situation but not authorized to speak publicly as a matter of practice.

President Barack Obama will speak about the release and changes in U.S.-Cuba relations at noon.

The White House had previously said that releasing Gross “would remove an impediment to more constructive relations between the United States and Cuba.”

Gross, a subcontractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development, has been held in Cuba since his arrest on Dec. 3, 2009, for smuggling satellite communications equipment to Cuba as part of USAID’s pro-democracy programs. It was his fifth trip to Cuba to work with Jewish communities on setting up Internet access.

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said earlier this month that the U.S. was “deeply concerned” about Gross’s health and that a release on humanitarian grounds would make it easier to normalize relations with Cuba.

“The success of this monumental development depends on Castro’s willingness to grant basic democratic freedoms for the Cuban people,” said Sen. Bill Nelson, D-FL, a long-time Castro regime critic and economic embargo supporter.

Gross had become increasingly frustrated with the U.S. government and its failure so far to win his freedom, said his wife, Judy, who said earlier this month on the fifth anniversary of the captivity that it was “time for President Obama to bring Alan back to the United States now; otherwise it will be too late."

“Alan is resolved that he will not endure another year imprisoned in Cuba, and I am afraid that we are at the end,” Gross said. “After five years of literally wasting away, Alan is done.”

The Cuban government had linked Gross’s release to the imprisonment of five Cubans convicted in 2001 of infiltrating South Florida military installations and spying on the exile community. The men, considered heroes in Cuba, were convicted in 2001 in Miami on charges including conspiracy and failure to register as foreign agents in the U.S.

The administration had repeatedly ruled out a swap, saying the USAID subcontractor wasn’t a spy and can’t be part of a spy-for-spy swap. But news reports Wednesday indicate that three Cubans were released in exchange for Gross. The other two of the so-called Cuban Five were previously released after completing their sentences.

“Let's be clear, this was not a ‘humanitarian’ act by the Castro regime. It was a swap of convicted spies for an innocent American,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez, D-N.J. “President Obama's actions have vindicated the brutal behavior of the Cuban government. There is no equivalence between an international aid worker and convicted spies who were found guilty of conspiracy to commit espionage against our nation.”

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who is considering a run for president, told our colleague at the Miami Herald that Gross' release from Cuba is “spectacular news. But he shouldn't have been there in the 1st place.”

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