Alan Gross was released from Cuban detention marking the end of the five-year saga. U.S. officials reportedly negotiated his release with the release of several Cubans detained in the United States. Fox News reported that a senior Obama official said Gross left the communist country Wednesday morning on a government plane accompanied by his wife, Maryland Congressman Rep. Chris Van Hollen and Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz. The Associated Press reported his release was in time with the freeing of three Cubans incarcerated in the U.S.
President Barak Obama was scheduled to give a speech at noon on Wednesday in regards to the release. President Raul Castro is expected to speak in Havana about the exchange around the same time. Officials saw the detainment of Gross as a hindrance towards building a better relationship with the island country. They were hoping with the recent round of negotiations that broader talks on possibly ending the economic embargo on Cuba could be established.
The release could not have happened at a greater time. For years, Gross and his family had filed numerous appeals to his incarceration only to be rejected. Judy Gross, his wife, feared for his life believing that her husband would attempt something drastic. The exchange also included an American spy imprisoned in the communist country more than 20 years. Authorities did not reveal the identity of the second person for security reasons.
Gross was captured in December of 2009. He reportedly was establishing Internet access for the United States’ Agency for International Development. It was during his fifth trip to the country to assist Jewish communities as they set up network access that would circumvent local censorship that he was captured. Per Cuban government rules, USAID programs are believed to be attempts by the U.S. to destabilize the government.
He was charged and convicted of attempting to incite a “Cuban Spring” in reference to the Arab Spring that occurred in Egypt. Gross was tried and sentenced and expected to serve 15 years incarcerated.
The Cuban nationals that were released in exchange for Gross are allegedly members of the Cuban Five – referring to a group of men sent by then-President Fidel Castro to do reconnaissance on South Florida and obtain intelligence on Cuban-American exile leaders. In Cuba they were revered as heroes when convicted in Miami in 2001. The charges included failure to register as foreign agents in the United States and conspiracy. The other two members of “The Five” were previously released having served out their sentence.
Gerardo Hernandez, the leader of the five, was connected to the crashing of two planes belong to Brothers to the Rescue, a Miami based dissident faction. Four men died in the crashes. Hernandez was serving two life sentences. Antonio Guerrero and Ramon Labanino had a few years remaining.
President Obama suggested a thawing of frosty relations with the communist foe on the fifth year anniversary of Gross’ detainment. According to Obama, the release on humanitarian grounds removed a hurdle towards establishing warmer relations with Cuba. So far, the president has tried to ease relations by relaxing certain restrictions on the island after Raul Castro took power from his sick brother. While resisting calls to lift the embargo, Obama has attempted to lift travel restrictions and financial restrictions on American citizens with family members living in Cuba. Obama was also said to want to re-open the American Embassy on the island.
This marks the second surprise prisoner exchange conducted by the U.S. Earlier this year as five Taliban fighters were freed from Guantanamo Bay to garner Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl’s freedom. He had been captured by Taliban forces and was released back in May.
The thawing of relations between the United States and Cuba comes as the Summit of the America approaches. Scheduled in March 2015, Cuba is said to be participating for the first time. Washington vetoed their participation in the summit in the past on the grounds Cuba was not a democracy, but with the release of Alan Gross and another unnamed American spy, Washington would be more inclined to allow the Cuban government to participate. Several countries had already voiced they would not if the country was rejected again.
By Stevenson Benoit
Photo by Frans Persoon – Flickr License