(JNS.org) Jewish-American aid worker Alan Gross was released from Cuban prison Wednesday and returned to the United States. The U.S. and Cuba also took part in a prisoner swap, but both countries said Gross was freed on humanitarian grounds and not in the exchange.
Gross, a subcontractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development who went to Cuba to help the Jewish community there access the Internet, received a 15-year prison sentence for what the Cuban government called “crimes against the state.” He marked his fifth year of incarceration on Dec. 3, and his health had deteriorated drastically. His release comes against the backdrop of a thawing in longstanding diplomatic tension between America and Cuba. The U.S. plans to open an embassy in the Cuban capital of Havana.
U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) had expressed optimism about Gross’s future upon visiting Gross in November.
“I do feel we are closer [to Gross’s freedom],” Flake said last month. “One, because of what Alan Gross has said himself. This is going to end one way or another. We have gone on five years and any benefit the Cuban government may have seen has to have evaporated.”
The U.S. freed three prisoners who were members of the “Cuban Five,” a group of men sent by former Cuban president Fidel Castro to spy on the U.S. from south Florida. In 2001, they were convicted of conspiracy and failure to register as foreign agents. Cuba released a U.S. intelligence agent who had been imprisoned for nearly 20 years, in addition to freeing 53 of its own prisoners whom the U.S. deemed to be political prisoners.
Jewish organizations had advocated for Gross's freedom throughout the duration of his imprisonment.
"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."
Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, told The Algemeiner that Gross’s release “always hinged on the U.S. release of the three Cuban agents.”
“We met with Cuban officials about this over the past five years and that was always their bottom line,” Hoenlein said.
William Daroff, senior vice president for public policy at the Jewish Federations of North America, said, “The headline for the Jewish community is that on the first day of Hanukkah, we are overjoyed with the miracle of Alan Gross being returned to his family.”
At a news conference in Washington, DC, Gross—a native of Potomac, Md.—thanked the Jewish organizations who pushed for his release.
“To the Washington Jewish community, Ron Halber in particular and his staff at the Jewish Community Relations Council [of Greater Washington], all of the executive directors, staff, and volunteers of participating JCRCs, federations, synagogues, schools, and other Jewish, Christian, and Muslim organizations nationwide, God bless you and thank you,” Gross said.