American contractor Alan Gross has landed in the US after being released from a Cuban prison where he was held for five years.
In a landmark humanitarian prison exchange announced by President Obama at the White House, the agreement was reached following over a year of secret back channel talks at the highest levels of both governments.
Gross’, 65, release, who is said to be in poor physical condition, represents a first step toward normalizing relations with the island nation 90 miles off the coast of Florida.
The U.S. and Cuba have began talks to restore diplomatic relations, according to the White House.
“Today, the United States is taking historic steps to chart a new course in our relations with Cuba and to further engage and empower the Cuban people. We are separated by 90 miles of water, but brought together through the relationships between the two million Cubans and Americans of Cuban descent that live in the United States, and the 11 million Cubans who share similar hopes for a more positive future for Cuba.”
The announcement comes after Obama and Cuban president Raul Castro spoke by phone. Their conversation was describing as a “summing up” of the work that’s been done over the past year leading up to these changes. The two leaders discussed issues of importance in the hemisphere, while also noting that they will have differences to come.
Gross was convicted of espionage by a Cuban court in 2011 and sentenced for 15 years for bringing telecommunication devices into the country while working as a subcontractor for the United States Agency for International Development.
The Cuban government accused him of being party to a US-led plot to overthrow the government through an “Arab spring.”
Following a recent visit, Gross’ attorney described him as nearly toothless, barely able to walk because of arthritis in his hips and blind in one eye. He was kept in a small room at a military hospital 24 hours a day with two other Cuban political prisoners.
Gross has refused medical and dental care or outside privileges, and declined visits and food from the U.S. Interest section in Havana. He promised a hunger strike leading to death if not released by the end of 2014.
Judy Gross on the anniversary of Gross’ time in jail
“Enough is enough. My husband has paid a terrible price for serving his country and community.”
In return for Gross, the United States agreed to the humanitarian release of three Cuban agents convicted of espionage in a controversial trial that found them guilty of spying on anti-Castro groups in Miami, but not the U.S. government. All three were most recently held in North Carolina at a federal facility for the U.S. Bureau of Prisons.