Five years after he was arrested in Cuba on a charge of providing illegal technical assistance to the country’s small Jewish community, New York-born Alan Gross, who inadvertently became one of the world’s most prominent Jewish political prisoners, is a free man.
Gross, 65, was released today from Cuban prison on “humanitarian grounds” and flew back to the United States on an American military plane, joined by his wife, Judy, and several members of Congress. “I’m free,” Gross declared to his daughters during a phone call from the plane.
As he reunited with friends and family after landing at Andrews Air Force base near Washington, President Obama, who called Gross’ imprisonment “a major obstacle” to improved bilateral ties, announced a thaw in US-Cuban relations, including a start of the process to full diplomatic relations, and the weakening of the American trade embargo and other sanctions against the island nation.
At the same time, Cuban President Raul Castro on Cuban TV announced the “normalization” of ties.
Both cited Pope Francis, who had urged both leaders to bring about Gross’ release and an end of bilateral hostilities.
Events this week, following more than a year of clandestine negotiations, took place so rapidly today that the bringalanhome.org website still bore the headline “Unjustly Imprisoned For | 1840 | Days.” The Free Alan Gross Facebook page declared “ALAN HAS BEEN FREED! PRAISE GOD IN THE HIGHEST!”
American officials made no immediate comment today on details of the release, and denied that Gross was part of a direct prisoner exchange; rather, Gross was released after the US agreed to release three long-held Cubans.
And leaders of American Jewish organizations, who had publicly and behind the scenes urged the Cuban government to end the prison sentence of Gross — who was reportedly in poor health and went on a nine-day hunger strike in April — praised his release.
“I’m so happy for his family, who have had a difficult time all these years,” said Rabbi Arthur Schneier of Park East Synagogue, who visited Gross in prison two years ago during a humanitarian mission of the ecumenical Appeal of Conscience Foundation.
Was Gross a bargaining chip for Cuba in bilateral relations? “To some degree, yes,” Rabbi Schneier said.
"We are most pleased by the reports of the release of Alan Gross from imprisonment in Cuba and await his return to the Unites States," said Conference of Presidents leaders Robert G. Sugarman, chairman, and Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman. “The Presidents Conference has long been active in the effort to seek Mr. Gross’s release and petitioned US and foreign governments, as well as Cuban officials, and met high ranking leaders of the Castro government. In this, we worked closely with the Gross family and their attorneys, as well as the Washington JCRC, Jewish Federations of North America, and other groups. His family and friends never lagged in their efforts.”
Hoenlein said the Gross’ imprisonment because a public cause in the Jewish community after it became clear that quiet diplomacy was not effective. “The [US] government was not able to effectuate anything.
“We realized we had an obligation – the guy was suffering,” Hoenlein said. He and other Jewish leaders agreed that Gross’ imprisonment did not appear to be a case of anti-Semitism.”
While “there is no direct link” between Gross’ release and the long-term prison sentence of Jonathan Pollard, who pleaded guilty in 1987 to spying for Israel, Hoenlein said it is possible “that action will be taken” to influence the US government on Pollard’s behalf. “Maybe it will increase the efforts. We do hope the President will act to release Pollard expeditiously.”
Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said, “For five long years, Mr. Gross’ incarceration has been used by the Cuban government for political purposes on issues that had nothing to do with him and his alleged activities. Over these years, Judy Gross was an indefatigable advocate for her husband, never letting the world forget about Alan, and we extend our good wishes to Mr. Gross as he rejoins his family and rebuilds his health and life.”
“For the past several years, the OU has prayed, rallied and lobbied in support of Alan's release,” the Orthodox Union said in a statement. “Our joy upon receiving the news of his freedom is enhanced as we note that this week synagogues around the nation and around the world read the Torah portion, Miketz, that recounts the release of Joseph from his own unjust imprisonment in ancient Egypt. We are certain this will prove to be a most joyous Chanukah for Alan Gross and his family.”
For more than three years, fifth grade students at the Solomon Schechter Day School of Nassau County have recited a prayer for Gross’ release. At about 9:30, Cantor Marcey Wagner announced over the public address system that Gross had been freed.
“Our prayers have been answered,” she told the students. “It is a true Chanukah miracle.”
Wagner said the fifth graders would be writing letters to Gross “to welcome him home, wish him good health and renew our open invitation for him to visit our school.”
In a letter Gross sent to the students last Chanukah, he promised to visit them should he ever be freed.
Gross, who worked for Development Alternatives, of Bethesda, Md., and had traveled to more than 50 countries as an international development worker, was in Cuba five years ago to deliver satellite telephone equipment that was capable of cloaking connections to the Internet when he was arrested in 2009. During his time there, his fifth visit to Cuba, he set up Internet access for the 1,500-member Jewish community.
Cuban authorities, suspicious that Gross was conducting espionage for the United States, detained him as he was about to depart, and held him for over a year without charges in Havana's maximum-security Villa Marista prison. He was tried, found guilty, and sentenced to 15 years behind bars, on a charge of bringing in the devices without a permit as part of a subversive plot to “destroy the revolution.”
State Department officials insisted that. Gross was not an intelligence agent.
In addition to prominent Jewish organizations, dozens of members of Congress also called for Gross’ release.
While imprisoned, he missed his mother’s funeral and his eldest daughter’s wedding.