U.S. contractor Alan Gross, who was imprisoned by the Cuban government for five years, returned home to Maryland Wednesday in what is being dubbed by many as a Chanukah miracle.
Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), who was informed Tuesday night by Vice President Joe Biden of Gross’ release, was at Joint Base Andrews in Prince George’s County to greet Gross when he landed aboard a State Department plane. He 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, 65, is in poor health and reportedly lost more than 100 pounds while incarcerated. In recent weeks, his family warned that he couldn’t last in captivity much longer; he had even told his wife and daughter goodbye.
Cuban officials said he was released on humanitarian grounds, but Gross’ freedom came amid a recalibration of U.S. policy that is expected to include the swap of three imprisoned Cuban spies for what news reports were calling a high-value American intelligence asset that has been held by Cuba for 20 years.
American Jewish organizations kept Gross’ plight in the public eye for years, but it was the Vatican and Pope Francis who reportedly played key roles in winning Gross’ release. Canada also helped facilitate talks between the U.S. and Cuba since June 2013, according to a CNN report.
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 Monday from National Security Advisor Susan Rice who informed him that Gross’ release was imminent.
“All the back room 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.”
Alan Ronkin, Washington, D.C. regional director of the American Jewish Committee, said, “Maybe he’s going to the White House Chanukahparty today. We are just so thrilled for the family and thankful to the administration for their work and to the Vatican.”
Confirmed for the White House Chanukah reception Wednesday night was Gwen Zuares, Gross’ sister-in-law, who intended to personally thank President Barack Obama for his efforts in securing his release.
Administration officials called the larger prisoner swap a separate exchange, but 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 sub-contractor, 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.”
Rabbi Sunny Schnitzer of Bethesda Jewish Congregation, who has 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 Wednesday that a colleague, Rev. John McCullough of Church World Service, had gone to the federal prison in Kentucky on Monday 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 was a sign that a prisoner release was imminent, Schnitzer said.
Statements of support released Wednesday morning by the Orthodox Union, the Baltimore Jewish Council, Jewish Community 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 bargaining chips.”
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, fully 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.
“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,” said Obama. “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 reestablished 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 reestablished 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.”
“Tonight as we kindle the second Chanukah candle,” the Greater Miami Jewish Federation said in a statement, “we know it will burn that much brighter for us in gratitude for the release of Alan Gross and for all those who championed his cause for so long.”