After US President Barack Obama got on the phone with Cuban President Raul Castro in a telephone communication that lasted almost an hour, communist Cuba has ordered the release of US contractor Alan Gross who had been held prisoner by Cuba since 2009; and President Obama also ordered the release of three Cuban intelligence agents convicted of espionage in 2001.
President Obama is currently working on a trade and economic overhaul that will deepen mutual relations between the two countries, and this might lead to the reopening of the Cuban embassy in the US since its closure in 1961.
Alan Gross together with a US intelligence expert was freed in a swap with Cuban agents. The unnamed US intelligence agent has been in jail in Cuba for over 20 years, but Gross had only been incarcerated for 5 years following his arrest while traveling under the US Agency for International Development program to deliver satellite phones and other communication devices to the Jewish population within the Cuban island.
Gross had been convicted in 2011 and sentenced to 15 years in prison after being charged that he was attempting to foment a “Cuban Spring”; but actually, he was only trying to set up an internet network for Jews within the Cuban island.
Vatican Pope Francis had at his meeting with Obama encouraged the US to renew talks with Cuba and pursue a closer relationship that is anchored on peace and development; and Canadian authorities have also brokered talks between the US and Cuba since June 2013.
Many people welcome this bilateral effort, and the deal is seen by many to have the effect of shaping Obama’s foreign policy legacy. “We are charting a new course toward Cuba,” a senior administration official said. “The President understood the time was right to attempt a new approach, both because of the beginnings of changes in Cuba and because of the impediment this was causing for our regional policy.”
And Obama publicly acknowledged the efforts of Washington and Havana to get Gross released as a way to start reforms that could increase relations between the two countries. “We’ve been in conversations about how we can get Alan Gross home for quite some time,” Obama said in an interview with Fusion television network. “We continue to be concerned about him.”
About 66 senators had written a letter to Obama in November 2013 to “act expeditiously to take whatever steps are in the national interest to obtain [Gross’s] release,” after it became apparent that Gross had lost over 100 pounds of weight as well as some of his teeth. He could also barely walk even when released, and he has lost vision in one eye.
The three Cubans that were released were part of the Cuban Five, and they belonged to the Wasp Network – an agency that collected intelligence on prominent Cuban-American exile leaders and on US military bases. Gerardo Hernandez, the leader of the group of five was fingered to have downed two US planes in February 1996 in an incident that claimed four lives. The two others, Rene Gonzalez and Fernando Gonzalez were released after serving most of their 15-year jail terms and they have already returned to Cuba where the citizens hail them as heroes.