The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said President Obama has “vindicated the brutal behavior of the Cuban government” by swapping for the release of longtime U.S. hostage Alan Gross.
USAID subcontractor Alan Gross recently marked the fifth anniversary of his arrest in Cuba.
Gross had wrapped up work on a project to increase Internet access and connectivity at Cuban synagogues when he was seized the night before he was to return home. He spent 14 months behind bars before any charges were filed, then in March 2011 was quickly tried and convicted of “acts against the independence or territorial integrity of the state” for distributing cell phones and other communications equipment as part of the USAID project.
He was sentenced to 15 years behind bars. Earlier this year he completed a nine-day hunger strike, telling his attorney in May that his 65th birthday would be the last he spends in prison, one way or another.
In June, his wife Judy Gross pleaded with President Obama “to do everything in his power to end this nightmare and bring Alan home from Cuba now.”
The three remaining members of the Cuban five were negotiated for what senior administration officials said was a U.S. intelligence asset who had been held by Cuba for 20 years; they said they asset will not be identified. They said Gross was separately release on “humanitarian grounds.”
Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who has warned of Obama’s unilateral action to loosen restrictions on Cuba, isn’t buying it.
“Let’s be clear, this was not a ‘humanitarian’ act by the Castro regime,” Menendez said. “It was a swap of convicted spies for an innocent American.”
The chairman nonetheless called it “a moment of profound relief for Alan Gross and his family.”
“Mr. Gross’ physical and mental health has declined severely as a result of his five-year imprisonment under difficult conditions. He should have been released immediately and unconditionally five years ago. He committed no crime and was simply working to provide internet access to Cuba’s small Jewish community. His imprisonment was cruel and arbitrary, but consistent with the behavior of the Cuban regime,” Menendez said.
“There is no equivalence between an international aid worker and convicted spies who were found guilty of conspiracy to commit espionage against our nation. One spy was also convicted of conspiracy to murder for his role in the 1996 tragedy in which the Cuban military shot down two U.S. civilian planes, killing several American citizens. My heart goes out to the American families that lost love ones on that fateful day.”
The senator continued that trading Gross for “three convicted criminals sets an extremely dangerous precedent.”
“It invites dictatorial and rogue regimes to use Americans serving overseas as bargaining chips. I fear that today’s actions will put at risk the thousands of Americans that work overseas to support civil society, advocate for access to information, provide humanitarian services, and promote democratic reforms,” Menendez continued.
“This asymmetrical trade will invite further belligerence toward Cuba’s opposition movement and the hardening of the government’s dictatorial hold on its people. Let us all remind ourselves that an untold number of ordinary people yearning for democracy remain imprisoned by the exact same tormentors that have punished Alan Gross and they, along with all Cubans, deserve a free and liberated Cuba.”
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) was scheduled to make a statement at the Capitol at 12:30 p.m.
Rubio released a statement calling the “dramatic change in U.S. policy toward Cuba… just the latest in a long line of failed attempts by President Obama to appease rogue regimes at all cost.”
“Like all Americans, I rejoice at the fact that Alan Gross will be able to return to his family after five years in captivity. Although he is supposedly being released on humanitarian grounds, his inclusion in a swap involving intelligence agents furthers the Cuban narrative about his work in Cuba. In contrast, the Cuban Five were spies operating against our nation on American soil. They were indicted and prosecuted in a court of law for the crimes of espionage and were linked to the murder of the humanitarian pilots of Brothers to the Rescue. There should be no equivalence between the two, and Gross should have been released unconditionally,” Rubio said.
“The president’s decision to reward the Castro regime and begin the path toward the normalization of relations with Cuba is inexplicable.”
Judy Gross said in a heart-wrenching statement at the beginning of the month, “I am afraid that we are at the end.”
“Enough is enough. My husband has paid a terrible price for serving his country and community,” she said. “…After five years of literally wasting away, Alan is done. It is time for President Obama to bring Alan back to the United States now; otherwise it will be too late.”
In June, Judy Gross noted that if Obama “can trade five members of the Taliban to bring home one American soldier, surely we can figure out a path forward to bring home one American citizen from a Cuban prison.”
Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) along with Sens. Pat Leahy (D-Vt.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) flew to Cuba to bring Gross home.
“This day would not have been possible without the tireless advocacy of Alan’s wife, Judy, who never gave up. I also want to thank President Obama and his team, including Chief of Staff Denis McDonough and National Security Advisor Susan Rice, for their dedication to this effort and to their vision of a new day in the relationship between the United States and Cuba,” Van Hollen said in a statement. “I also want to recognize my friend and colleague, Congressman Jim McGovern, for his important role in gaining Alan’s release, and for his persistence in working to open a new chapter in the U.S.-Cuban relationship.”
That includes opening a U.S. Embassy in Havana and other relaxation of policy to be formally announced by Obama at noon.