Washington: An American aid worker, who had spent over five years in jail in Cuba on charges of spying, was released today as part of a prisoner swap deal between the two countries as the White House announced talks with Havana to normalize diplomatic relations with the Communist state.
Alan Gross was released on humanitarian grounds by the Cuban government at the behest of the United States.
"This morning, Alan Gross has departed Cuba on a US government plane bound for the United States. Gross was released on humanitarian grounds by the Cuban government at the request of the United States," a senior administrative official said.
"I'm overjoyed to welcome Alan Gross home after five long years in a Cuban prison. Alan's supposed crime was that he provided Cuba's small Jewish community with computer equipment to help them access the internet," said Senator Dick Durbin, who met Gross in prison in 2012 and again earlier this year.
"Opening the door with Cuba for trade, travel, and the exchange of ideas will create a force for positive change in Cuba that more than 50 years of our current policy of exclusion could not achieve," Durbin said.
"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 behaviour of the Cuban regime," he said. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez said this is 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 said.
Senior Administration officials said Gross's release was a humanitarian act by the Government of Cuba.
However, Menendez said Gross was not released on humanitarian grounds. "This was not a "humanitarian" act by the Castro regime. It was a swap of convicted spies for an innocent American," he said. "President Obama's actions have vindicated the brutal behavior of the Cuban government. 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 US civilian planes, killing several American citizens," Menendez said. "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," he said.
"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 said.