By Mike Hellgren


WASHINGTON (AP/WJZ) — Maryland native Alan Gross is home Wednesday after being imprisoned in a Cuban jail for more than five years. He was released as part of an agreement that also includes the release of three Cubans jailed in the United States, senior U.S. officials said Wednesday.

Gross, 65, addressed the public Wednesday afternoon, thanking everyone who helped him gain his freedom.

“I want to acknowledge the extraordinary and determined efforts of my wife of forty four and a half years, Judy Gross, and my lawyer and Personal Moses, Scott Gilbert, to restore my freedom, Gross said. “I want to thank all of the members of Congress from all sides of the aisle, such as Senator Jeff Flake and Reps. Chris Van Hollen and Barbara Lee, who supported, spoke up for, and visited me, subjected themselves to my ranting, and helped me to regain some of my weight.”

“It was crucial to my survival, knowing that I was not forgotten, ” Gross said, about everyone who tried to help. “What a blessing it is to be a citizen of this country, and thank you, President Obama.”

He also said he did not blame the people of Cuba.

“I also feel compelled to share with you my utmost respect for and fondness of the people of Cuba,” Gross added.

Gross flew into Andrews Air Force base around 11 a.m. Wednesday. On the plane he ate latkes, applesauce and a corned beef sandwich, as well as popcorn, which he had missed while in prison.

He said it was the best Hanukkah he’s had in a while.

READ: Marylanders React To Alan Gross’ Release |American Released From Cuba Was ‘Trusting Fool’

White House officials said Gross was released on humanitarian grounds by the Cuban government at the request of the Obama administration.

A USAID subcontractor who lived in Potomac, he was sentenced to 15 years in prison for crimes against the Cuban state.

READ: Alan Gross’ Wife Addresses His Cuban Imprisonment

The United States and Cuba will start talks on normalizing full diplomatic relations, marking the most significant shift in U.S. policy toward the communist island in decades, American officials said Wednesday.

The announcement comes amid a series of new confidence-building measures between the longtime foes, including the release of  Gross and the freeing of three Cubans jailed in the U.S.

Bonnie Rubinstein, Gross’ sister, heard the news from a cousin, who saw it on television.

“We’re like screaming and jumping up and down,” she said in a brief telephone interview from her home in Texas.

Maryland officials also reacted to the news.

Congressman Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), who accompanied Gross on his flight back to the states, released a statement about Gross’ release, “Today, it brings me great joy to join with Judy Gross and Senators Leahy and Flake to bring my friend Alan Gross home from Cuba after his five years in prison.”

President Barack Obama announced Cuba policy changes Wednesday in light of Gross’ release.

“In the most significant changes in our policy in more than fifty years, we will end an outdated approach that, for decades, has failed to advance our interests, and instead we will begin to normalize relations between our two countries,” Obama said. “Neither the American, nor Cuban people are well served by a rigid policy that is rooted in events that took place before most of us were born. ”

The President said he instructed Secretary of State John Kerry to begin discussions with Cuba to reestablish diplomatic relations. The U.S. will also reestablish an embassy in Havana.

He also added that the U.S. will “increase travel, commerce, and the flow of information to and from Cuba.”

Gross was detained in December 2009 while working to set up Internet access as a subcontractor for the U.S. government’s U.S. Agency for International Development, which does work promoting democracy in the communist country. It was his fifth trip to Cuba to work with Jewish communities on setting up Internet access that bypassed local censorship.

Cuba considers USAID’s programs illegal attempts by the U.S. to undermine its government, and Gross was tried and sentenced to 15 years in prison.

The three Cubans released in exchange for Gross are part of the so-called Cuban Five — a group of men who were part of the “Wasp Network” sent by Cuba’s then-President Fidel Castro to spy in South Florida. The men, who are hailed as heroes in Cuba, were convicted in 2001 in Miami on charges including conspiracy and failure to register as foreign agents in the U.S.

Two of the Cuban Five were previously released after finishing their sentences.

In a statement marking the fifth anniversary of Gross’ detention earlier this month, Obama hinted that his release could lead to a thaw in relations with Cuba.

“The Cuban Government’s release of Alan on humanitarian grounds would remove an impediment to more constructive relations between the United States and Cuba,” Obama said in a statement.

But many Cuban Americans have lashed out, saying the Castro regime will continue human rights abuses.

“I am very concerned to see our president in negotiations with a terrorist country,” said Rosado Lopez.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, said the U.S. and Cuba were moving toward normalized banking and trade ties. He also said the U.S. was poised to open an embassy in Havana in the coming months.

“This is going to do absolutely nothing to further human rights and democracy in Cuba,” Rubio said in an interview. “But it potentially goes a long way in providing the economic lift that the Castro regime needs to become permanent fixtures in Cuba for generations to come.”

Gross’ family has said he was in ailing health. His wife, Judy, said in a statement earlier this month that Gross has lost more than 100 pounds, can barely walk due to chronic pain, and has lost five teeth and much of the sight in his right eye. He has begun refusing to see his wife and daughter, the new chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana and members of Cuba’s small Jewish community, who had been visiting him on religious holidays.

“He looks like a concentration camp victim,” Judy, his wife said previously to WJZ. “He’s bony, his ribs are sticking out.”

Obama has taken some steps to ease U.S. restrictions on Cuba after Raul Castro took over as president in 2010 from his ailing brother. He has sought to ease travel and financial restrictions on Americans with family in Cuba, but has resisted calls to drop the embargo.

Obama and Raul Castro shook hands and exchanged pleasantries last year while both attended a memorial service in South Africa for Nelson Mandela.

The surprise prisoner swap has echoes of the deal the U.S. cut earlier this year to secure the release of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who had been held by the Taliban. In exchange for his release in May, the U.S. turned over five Taliban prisoners held at the Guantanamo Bay detention center.

In the end, this one man is behind a watershed moment in US history—with his release, the president is reopening diplomatic ties with Cuba for the first time in more than 50 years. On a personal level, Gross summed it up in just five words:

“It’s good to be home,” he said.

(Copyright 2014 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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