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Alan Gross Returns Home as US and Cuba Restore Diplomatic Relationships In Historic Policy Shift

The US and Cuba swapped prisoners and announced a plan to resume diplomatic relationships, starting a "new chapter" after half a century of hostility.
December 17, 2014, 3:45pm
Photo via AP Photo/Gross Family

Alan Gross, a 65-year old US contractor held in a Cuban jail for five years, was released on Wednesday and has arrived home to the United States as the US and Cuba begin "a new chapter" and move towards the normalization of diplomatic relations, President Obama said on Wednesday.

Gross, looking healthier and in good spirits, thanked Obama for securing his release.

"What a blessing it is to be a citizen of this country," he said at a press conference, also thanking all members of Congress "who spoke up or visited me, subjected themselves to my ranting, and helped me regain some of my weight."

"Even in Cuba, M&Ms melt in my mouth," he joked.

"To me Cubanos, or at least most of them, are incredibly kind, generous and talented," Gross added. "It pains me to see them treated so unjustly as a consequence of two governments' mutually belligerent policies."

Obama announced today that the US will open an embassy in Havana and move to lift economic restrictions. While only Congress has the authority to overrule the embargo, the president said he is looking forward to engaging members of Congress to make that happen.

"Today Alan returned home, reunited with his family at long last," Obama said on Wednesday afternoon. "Today the United States of America is changing its relationship with the people of Cuba."

Obama said the "outdated approach" to relationships so far has failed to serve American and Cuban interests, and he announced sweeping reforms and a new policy of engagement and inclusion.

"These 50 years have shown, isolation has not worked," Obama said."I believe this contact will ultimately do more to help the Cuban people."

At the same time, Cuban President Raul Castro spoke to the Cuban people in Havana, hailing the release ofthree high-profile Cuban prisoners held in the US — members of the "Cuban Five" — who were also released as part of the exchange. The three men were members of the "Wasp Network" sent by Castro to spy in south Florida, where they were convicted in 2001 for conspiracy and failure to register as foreign agents.

The other two had had previously been released after finishing their sentences in 2012.All of the men are seen as heroes in Cuba.

"Like Fidel promised in 2001 when he said 'they'll come back' today Gerardo [Hernández], Ramón [Lebañino] and Antonio [Guerrero], arrived home," Castro said. "This decision by President Obama deserves the respect and recognition of our people."

"This does not mean that the most important issue has been resolved," Castro continued. "The economic, commercial, and financial embargo on our country, which causes huge human and economic damages to our country, must end."

Castro said that deep differences between the two countries remained, but added, "we must learn the art of coexisting in a civilized manner with our differences."

Gross's was released on "humanitarian grounds" by Cuba, Obama said, while the three Cuban men's release was obtained in exchange for the release of an unnamed US intelligence source who was jailed in Cuba for more than 20 years.

Obama and Castro announced the landmark shift in relationships in simultaneous addresses today, what marks the most significant diplomatic overture since the two countries severed ties in January 1961. Former president Fidel Castro was not involved in the talks, senior White House officials said.

The two presidents spoke on the phone yesterday — the first contact between the countries' presidents since the Cuban Revolution more than half a century ago, according to officials.

The announcement followed 18 months of secret talks held in Canada encouraged by Pope Francis, who personally wrote letters to Obama and Castro in the summer of 2014, officials said. The last round of talks took place at the Vatican.

Pope Francis "wishes to express his warm congratulations for the historic decision taken by the governments of the United States of America and Cuba to establish diplomatic relations, with the aim of overcoming, in the interest of the citizens of both countries, the difficulties which have marked their recent history," the Vatican said in a statement.

High-level visits between the two governments will also take place in the coming months, officials said.

Gross, a contractor for the United States Agency for International Development, was detained in 2009, convicted of espionage, and sentenced to 15 years in prison in 2011.

At the time of his arrest, Gross was in Cuba delivering satellite telephone equipment that would allow Cubans to get around some internet restrictions. Cuba considers the US agency's programs to counter censorship in the country illegal, but US officials said Cuban authorities had agreed to expand internet access in the country.

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Gross had previously described by his lawyer as almost toothless, barely walking, and partially blind, having refused medical treatment in protest of his imprisonment. He had also promised to go on a hunger strike if he was not released by the end of the year. His family said he has already lost more than 100 pounds.

Gross' sister Bonnie Rubinstein heard the news from a cousin, who saw it on TV.

"We're like screaming and jumping up and down," she told the Associated Press.

"We are extremely grateful that he's on his way home," she told The New York Times. "It's been a long ordeal."

A travel ban to Cuba will not immediately be lifted, though officials said Obama will be working to get it through Congress. Restrictions in 12 categories of travel currently allowed would be eased.

Cuba will also release 53 Cuban political prisoners on a list provided by the US.

The US will also ease banking restrictions on remittances, while US travelers will be allowed to import $400 worth of Cuban goods, including up to $100 in alcohol and tobacco.

"This is being done because we believe the policy of the past has not worked, and we believe the best way to bring democracy and prosperity to Cuba is through a different kind of policy," an administration official said on the call.

The move was immediately met with resistance, particularly by Republicans in both Senate and House.

"Appeasing the Castro brothers will only cause other tyrants from Caracas to Tehran to Pyongyang to see that they can take advantage of President Obama's naiveté during his final two years in office," Senator Marco Rubio of Florida said in a statement.

He added that he will "make every effort to block this dangerous and desperate attempt by the president to burnish his legacy at the Cuban people's expense" — including by blocking any Obama nominee to be ambassador to Cuba.

Officials today said they would continue to press Cuba about human rights issues in the country, and that they believed restored relationships would facilitate that.

"Where we disagree we will raise those issues directly," Obama said.

In January, a US State Department delegation will travel to Cuba for a round of US-Cuba migration talks, officials announced.

For the past five decades, "our policy toward Cuba has remained virtually frozen, and done little to promote a prosperous, democratic and stable Cuba," Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement. "Not only has this policy failed to advance America's goals, it has actually isolated the United States instead of isolating Cuba."

"I look forward to being the first Secretary of State in 60 years to visit Cuba," Kerry added.

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Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi