Alan Gross: Castro's prisoner
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    Cuba releases American Alan Gross in prisoner swap

    Cuba releases American Alan Gross in prisoner swap
    By Elise Labott, CNN Global Affairs Correspondent
    December 17, 2014 — Updated 1453 GMT (2253 HKT)

    The Obama administration announces landmark deal with Cuba
    Alan Gross, arrested and held in Cuba since 2009, was freed Wednesday
    Improved relations between the U.S. and Cuba will ease travel
    restrictions between the two countries
    Editor’s note: Read a version of this story in Spanish.
    Washington (CNN) — U.S. contractor Alan Gross, held by the Cuban
    government since 2009, was freed Wednesday as part of a landmark deal
    with Cuba that paves the way for a major overhaul in U.S. policy toward
    the island, senior administration officials tell CNN.
    President Barack Obama is expected to announce Gross’ release at noon in
    Washington. At around the same time, Cuban president Raul Castro will
    speak about it in Havana.
    Gross’ “humanitarian” release by Cuba was accompanied by a separate spy
    swap, the officials said. Cuba also freed a U.S. intelligence source who
    has been jailed in Cuba for more than 20 years, although authorities did
    not identify that person for security reasons. The U.S. released three
    Cuban intelligence agents convicted of espionage in 2001.
    President Obama is also set to announce a major loosening of travel and
    economic restrictions in what officials called the most sweeping change
    in U.S. policy toward Cuba since the 1961 embargo was imposed.
    Officials described the planned actions as the most forceful changes the
    president could make without legislation passing through Congress.
    Cuban agents to be ‘treated as heroes’ Before release, Gross told wife
    For a President who took office promising to engage Cuba, the move could
    help shape Obama’s foreign policy legacy.
    “We are charting a new course toward Cuba,” a senior administration
    official said. “The President understood the time was right to attempt a
    new approach, both because of the beginnings of changes in Cuba and
    because of the impediment this was causing for our regional policy.”
    Senators return home without Alan Gross
    Gross was arrested after traveling under a program under the U.S. Agency
    for International Development to deliver satellite phones and other
    communications equipment to the island’s small Jewish population.
    Alan Gross’s wife pleads for his release
    Cuban officials charged he was trying to foment a “Cuban Spring.” In
    2011, he was convicted and sentenced to 15 years in prison for
    attempting to set up an Internet network for Cuban dissidents “to
    promote destabilizing activities and subvert constitutional order.”
    After losing hope and health in Cuba, Gross finally released
    Rubio: Cuba using Alan Gross as a pawn
    Senior administration officials and Cuba observers have said recent
    reforms on the island and changing attitudes in the United States have
    created an opening for improved relations. U.S. and Cuban officials say
    Washington and Havana in recent months have increased official
    technical-level contacts on a variety of issues.
    Obama publicly acknowledged for the first time last week that Washington
    was negotiating with Havana for Gross’ release through a “variety of
    “We’ve been in conversations about how we can get Alan Gross home for
    quite some time,” Obama said in an interview with Fusion television
    network. “We continue to be concerned about him.”
    More on detained Americans
    Gross’ lawyer, Scott Gilbert, told CNN last month the years of
    confinement have taken their toll on his client. Gross has lost more
    than 100 pounds and is losing his teeth. His hips are so weak that he
    can barely walk and he has lost vision in one eye. He has also
    undertaken hunger strikes and threatened to take his own life.
    With Gross’ health in decline, a bipartisan group of 66 senators wrote
    Obama a letter in November 2013 urging him to “act expeditiously to take
    whatever steps are in the national interest to obtain [Gross’s] release.”
    The three Cubans released as a part of the deal belonged the so-called
    Cuban Five, a quintet of Cuban intelligence officers convicted in 2001
    for espionage. They were part of what was called the Wasp Network, which
    collected intelligence on prominent Cuban-American exile leaders and
    U.S. military bases.
    The leader of the five, Gerardo Hernandez, was linked to the February
    1996 downing of the two civilian planes operated by the U.S.-based
    dissident group Brothers to the Rescue, in which four men died. He is
    serving a two life sentences. Luis Medina, also known as Ramon Labanino;
    and Antonio Guerrero have just a few years left on their sentences.
    The remaining two — Rene Gonzalez and Fernando Gonzalez — were
    released after serving most of their 15-year sentences and have already
    returned to Cuba, where they were hailed as heroes.
    Wednesday’s announcement that the U.S. will move toward restoring
    diplomatic ties with Cuba will also make it easier for Americans to
    travel to Cuba and do business with the Cuban people by extending
    general licenses, officials said. While the more liberal travel
    restrictions won’t allow for tourism, they will permit greater American
    travel to the island.
    Secretary of State John Kerry has also been instructed to review Cuba’s
    place on the State Sponsors of Terrorism list, potentially paving the
    the way a lift on certain economic and political sanctions.
    The revised relationship between the U.S. and Cuba comes ahead of the
    March 2015 Summit of the Americas, where the island country is set to
    participate for the first time. In the past, Washington has vetoed
    Havana’s participation on the grounds it is not a democracy. This year,
    several countries have said they would not participate if Cuba was once
    again barred.
    While only Congress can formally overturn the five decades-long embargo,
    the White House has some authorities to liberalize trade and travel to
    the island.
    The 1996 Helms-Burton Act, which enshrined the embargo into legislation,
    allows for the President to extend general or specific licenses through
    a presidential determination, which could be justified as providing
    support for the Cuban people or democratic change in Cuba. Both
    Presidents Clinton and Obama exercised such authority to ease certain
    provisions of the regulations implementing the Cuba sanctions program.
    READ: Could a U.S.-Cuba prisoner swap break the ice?
    In an effort to boost the nascent Cuban private sector, the President
    will also allow expanded commercial sales and exports of goods and
    services to Cuba, particularly building materials for entrepreneurs and
    private residences, and allow greater business training, as well as
    permit greater communications hardware and services to go to the island.
    Other announced changes permit U.S. and Cuban banks to build
    relationships and travelers to use credit and debit cards. U.S.
    travelers will be allowed to import up to $400 worth of goods from Cuba,
    including $100 in alcohol and tobacco — even Cuban cigars. Remittances
    by Americans to their families back in Cuba will also be increased to
    approximately $2,000 per quarter.
    Officials stressed the moves were not being undertaken to prop up the
    Castro regime, but rather to encourage further reforms on the island.
    “None of this is seen as a reward. All of this is seen as a way of
    promoting change in Cuba because everything we have done in the past has
    demonstrably failed,” another senior administration official said. “This
    is not the U.S. government saying Cuba has gotten so much better. It is
    still an authoritarian state and we still have profound differences with
    this government.”
    “But if we hope for change with Cuba, we must try for a different
    approach. And we believe that considerably more engagement with the
    Cuban people and the Cuban government is the way to do that,” the
    official said, adding that the United States “will not for a moment
    lessen our support for improvement in human rights.”
    To that end, Cuba has agreed to release 53 political prisoners from a
    list of names provided by the United States. At least one of the
    prisoners has already been released. Havana has also agreed to permit
    significant access by its citizens to the Internet and allow the
    International Committee of the Red Cross and United Nations human rights
    officials back on the island for the first time in years.
    Talks on a deal began between senior White House and Cuban officials
    last year and happened in fits and starts, officials said. The officials
    praised the role the Vatican played as guarantor of the process.
    Officials would not reveal the name of the U.S. intelligence source, but
    officials said he was the individual who revealed to the U.S. the Wasp
    network, which included the Cuban Five.
    “He was a very important hero,” the U.S. official said.
    The moves are far more sweeping than the last action Obama took toward
    Cuba in January 2011, when he eased restrictions on travel to and from
    the island. Relations have been largely frozen since Gross’ conviction
    and the White House has made his release a condition of improved ties.
    In 2013, Obama drew praise from advocates of changing U.S. policy toward
    Cuba when he said the U.S. had to be “creative” and “thoughtful” about
    fostering change on the island.
    “The notion that the same policies that we put in place in 1961 would
    somehow still be as effective as they are today, in the age of the
    Internet and Google and world travel, doesn’t make sense,” Obama said at
    a November 2013 fundraiser in Florida. “We have to continue to update
    our policies.”
    CNN’s Patrick Oppmann contributed to this report

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