American contractor Alan Gross, held for five years in Cuba, has just been released and is heading home to the United States, a White House source tells ABC News and Fusion.
In what is being called a humanitarian prisoner exchange, 65 year-old Gross was released earlier this morning after more than a year of secret back channel talks at the highest levels of both governments. In exchange Cuba will see the return of the remaining three members of the "Cuban 5."
President Barack Obama is expected to announce the terms of the agreement later today. The deal, according to a White House source, is expected to include policy changes for relations between the two countries as an important first step toward normalization of relations. Both Obama and Cuban leader Raul Castro are expected to make nationally televised addresses today around noon.
The release of Gross in exchange for the Cuban prisoners is expected to remove what had become a major obstacle to advancing relations between the two countries.
The White House is now pledging new talks on everything from travel restrictions to eventually lifting the Cuban embargo, which has been in place since the presidency of John F. Kennedy.
Last week President Obama told Fusion’s Jorge Ramos that these conversations have been happening for a while.
“We’ve been in conversations about how we can get Alan Gross home for quite some time,” the president said.
“We continue to be concerned about him. We think that he shouldn’t have been held in the first place,” Obama told Ramos. “With respect to Cuba generally, I’ve made very clear that the policies that we have in making remittances easier for Cuban families, and making it easier for families to travel, have been helpful to people inside Cuba… But the Cuban government still needs to make significant changes.”
The three Cuban prisoners to be released in exchange for Gross were convicted of espionage in a highly controversial trial, which found them guilty of spying on anti-Castro groups in Miami, but not the U.S. government.
The three were most recently held in North Carolina at a federal medical facility for the U.S. Bureau of Prisons. The other two members of the "Cuban 5" have already been released.
In 2011 Gross was convicted of espionage by a Cuban court and sentenced to 15 years. While working as a subcontractor for USAID, Gross was accused of spying in an alleged U.S. plot to overthrow the Cuban government by bringing telecommunication devices onto the island.
Gross’ attorney, who recently visited his client in Cuba, told ABC News that Gross is in poor health; he reportedly suffers from hip problems, is blind in one eye, and is nearly toothless.
He had refused medical and dental care from Cuba, and declined outside privileges and visits from the U.S. Interest section in Havana.