The U.S. contractor who was freed Wednesday after five years in captivity in Cuba expressed support for restoring normal relations between the U.S. and Cuba, and celebrated his return to American soil.
"What a blessing it is to be a citizen of this country," Alan Gross said in a short speech from his lawyer's Washington, D.C. office.
In its inclusive values and intimate tone, Gross's speech seemed to offer a subtle counterpoint to those of the Cuban government that has held him in captivity for five years. Gross expressed gratitude to his family, his lawyers and to the Washington, D.C Jewish community of which he's a member, joked about Cuban M&M's, and evoked "the two pillars of Moses' covenant, freedom and responsibility." And he praised the Cuban people, saying they're "in no way responsible for the ordeal to which my family and I have been subjected."
President Obama announced that the U.S. will move to restore full diplomatic relations with Cuba and will open an embassy in Havana, making an end to decades of animosity between the two countries. The U.S. will also ease restrictions on travel and trade. “These 50 years have shown that isolation has not worked. It’s time for a new approach," Obama said at the White House.
“I was very happy to hear what the president had to say today,” he added. “This is a game-changer which I fully support.”
Gross sharply criticized the policy of antagonism that has characterized U.S.-Cuba relations for half a century.
“To me, Cubanos -- or at least most Cubanos -- are incredibly kind, generous and talented,” Gross said. “It pains me to see them treated so unjustly as one consequence of two governments' mutually belligerent policies. Five and a half decades of history show us that such belligerence inhibits better judgment; two wrongs never made a right.”
Gross was working to provide internet connectivity to Cuba’s small Jewish population when he was imprisoned on espionage charges in 2009. His imprisonment was a key sticking point in relations with Cuba. He was released Wednesday on what the Cuban government said were humanitarian grounds.
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Gross’s wife, Judy Gross, flew to Havana to meet her husband, and he returned on a charter flight accompanied by three American lawmakers – Sen. Patrick Leahy, Democrat of Vermont; Rep. Chris Van Hollen, Democrat of Maryland; and Republican Sen. Jeff Flake, Republican of Arizona – who have worked to improve U.S.-Cuban relations and bring Gross home.
Gross thanked all three, as well as Rep. Barbara Lee, a California Democrat, by name. But his strongest praise was for the president.
"Ultimately the decision to arrange for and secure my release was made in the Oval Office,” Gross said.
“I’m incredibly blessed finally to have the freedom to resume a positive and productive life,” said a visibly happy Gross. “It’s good to be home.”