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
While only Congress can formally overturn the five decades-long embargo,
the White House has some authorities to liberalize trade and travel to
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
“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
CNN’s Patrick Oppmann contributed to this report
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