Updated Dec. 22, 2014
Contractor Alan Gross’ release from Cuban imprisonment on Dec. 17 came as President Barack Obama announced a top-down recalibration of United States diplomatic relations with Cuba. While all sides cheered Gross’ release after five years, critics charged that the price the United States paid was too high.
The administration and Cuban officials said that Gross was released on humanitarian grounds and that his return to Maryland was unconnected to the deal that included the swap of three imprisoned Cuban spies for a high-value American intelligence asset who was held by Cuba for 20 years.
“This is a policy change that this administration had long sought,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said on the day Gross was released. “And after securing the humanitarian release of Mr. Gross, we’re able to remove the impediment to the implementation of these policy changes that the president believes is more consistent with our broader national security priorities and more
consistent with a policy that’s focused on expanding economic opportunity in this country.”
Gross was arrested in 2009 while working for the U.S. Agency for International Development to bring Internet access to Cuba’s small Jewish community. Cuban authorities accused Gross of trying to instigate a “Cuban Spring” and sentenced the Potomac resident to 15 years. Gross, now 65, is in poor health and reportedly lost more than 100 pounds and some of his teeth while incarcerated. In recent weeks, his family warned that he couldn’t last in captivity much longer; he had even told his daughter goodbye.
Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), who was informed the night before the release by Vice President Joe Biden, said in a statement that she was “overwhelmed with emotion” when she was given the news, and was at Joint Base Andrews in Prince George’s County along with her colleague Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) to greet Gross when he landed aboard a State Department plane.
“I applaud his release and hope that he can finally get the care and assistance he so desperately needs,” she said in a statement.
U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) has worked to keep Gross in the limelight during his imprisonment, visiting Gross in Cuba and appearing at vigils outside the Cuban Interest Section in Washington. He said that he received a call on Dec. 15 from National Security Adviser Susan Rice, who informed him that Gross’ release was imminent.
“All the backroom negotiations were driven by the White House and Judy Gross’ lawyer,” Van Hollen said. “We’ve been involved over the years to urge the president to make this a priority, which he clearly did.”
American Jewish organizations kept Gross’ plight in the public eye for years. Yet despite these efforts, details of the negotiations with Cuba were kept secret from them, lawmakers and even some State Department officials until a few days before Gross’ release was made public.
Dina Siegel Vann of the American Jewish Committee disagrees with that assessment.
“I don’t think we were caught unawares by this,” said Siegel Vann, a Mexico City native and director of the organization’s Belfer Institute for Latino and Latin American Affairs. “For the upcoming Summit of the Americas in April, Panama was adamant about Cuba participating. There were delicate negotiations going on behind the scene with the help of Pope Francis and Latin American countries.”
AJC was talking to countries with clout in Cuba from the beginning, she said.
“We brought up the issue with Panama, Brazil, Spain, France – countries with some sort of influence in Cuba,” she said. “Unfortunately, it didn’t have the effect [we had hoped.]”
Rabbi Sunny Schnitzer of Bethesda Jewish Congregation, who had visited Cuba several times and went in November as part of a three-member Joint Delegation of American Religious Leaders that participated in meetings with high-level Cuban officials with the goal of freeing Gross, said he learned the day of the release that a colleague, Rev. John McCullough of Church World Service, had gone to the federal prison in Kentucky two days earlier to visit one of the Cuban prisoners. The prisoner had been moved out of the prison. McCullough contacted the Cuban mission in Washington, which knew nothing about the move. In retrospect, that was a sign that a prisoner release was imminent, Schnitzer said.
Statements of support were released by the Orthodox Union, Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington and the Anti-Defamation League.
“We’re beyond elation. This is the goal that our Jewish community has been seeking to fulfill for five years,” said Ron Halber, executive director of the JCRC, who helped lead efforts by the D.C. Jewish community to free Gross. “We see the value of pidyon shvuyim, the ransoming of captives.”
Criticism of the exchange came swiftly from Sens. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), two of three Cuban-American senators.
Though he called Gross’ release a “profound moment of relief” for the family, Menendez, outgoing chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, harshly criticized the “asymmetrical trade.”
“Trading Mr. Gross for three convicted criminals sets an extremely dangerous precedent,” he said in a statement. “It invites dictatorial and rogue regimes to use Americans serving overseas as
Appearing on Fox News, Rubio said, “It’s absurd and it’s part of a long record of coddling dictators and tyrants that this administration has established.”
In contrast, former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat who traveled to Cuba several years ago to seek Gross’ release, welcomed the exchange, calling it “a good and proportional deal.”
Gross’ homecoming was used by the White House as a platform to announce sweeping changes in U.S.-Cuba relations. Obama told reporters that the United States had to chart a new course with its island neighbor 90 miles south of Florida.
“While I have been prepared to take additional steps for some time, a major obstacle stood in our way – the wrongful imprisonment, in Cuba, of a U.S. citizen and USAID subcontractor, Alan Gross, for five years,” said Obama. “Over many months, my administration has held
discussions with the Cuban government about Alan’s case, and other aspects of our relationship.
“Neither the American, nor Cuban, people are well served by a rigid policy that is rooted in events that took place before most of us were born. Consider that for more than 35 years, we’ve had relations with China, a far larger country also governed by a communist party. Nearly two decades ago, we re-established relations with Vietnam, where we fought a war that claimed more Americans than any Cold War confrontation.”
Diplomatic ties, which were severed in January 1961, will be re-established with the opening of an embassy in Havana. Legal travel to Cuba will be expanded, remittance levels to Cuba will be raised and authorized commercial sales and exports from the U.S. will be expanded along with other policy reforms.
Notably, Obama has instructed Secretary of State John Kerry to launch a review of Cuba’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism; Cuba was added to the list of such countries in 1982.
Roberta Jacobson, assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, will travel to Cuba in January to lead the U.S. delegation in the next round of negotiations.
In a separate release, Kerry said, “I look forward to being the first Secretary of State in 60 years to visit Cuba.”