The freeing of a U.S. contractor from a Cuban prison after five years could lead to the most significant normalization of relations between the countries in decades.
Why was he arrested?
Alan Gross was arrested in 2009 and convicted in a Cuban court in 2011 of espionage. He was sentenced to 15 years after bringing Internet communications equipment into the country under a U.S. program that promotes political change in Cuba. Three U.S. officials attended his trial.
The Cuban government said Gross was part of a plot to overthrow the government of Cuban President Raul Castro in an “Arab Spring” style. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has said Gross was part of a government project to set up individual satellite-based Internet connections in Cuba.
What was USAID doing in Cuba?
Gross’ release came after several news reports this year detailed some of USAID’s activities in Cuba. The Associated Press reported in April that USAID had set up a secretive “Cuban Twitter” called ZunZuneo, which Havana viewed as an attempt to undermine the government. Last week, the AP also reported USAID had infiltrated Cuba’s hip-hop scene and recruited rappers to lead a movement against the government.
After his imprisonment, Gross' wife sued Development Alternatives, Inc., which was chosen by the USAID to implement the U.S. government's "Cuba Program." Judy Gross said her husband was not adequately warned of the possible dangers of working in Cuba.
Coincidentally on the same day as Gross' release, USAID administrator Rajiv Shah announced he would step down from the position.
What was his life in Cuban prison like?
Gross was held in a military hospital in Havana because of health concerns. He shared a room with two other Cuban political prisoners and recently vowed to go on a hunger strike if he wasn’t released by the end of the year.
While he was jailed, Gross repeatedly appealed to the Cuban government to allow him to briefly travel to the United States to visit his mother who was suffering from lung cancer. Cuban officials refused the requests and his mother died in June.
Gross’ wife, Judy, has gone on a public crusade to bring her husband back to the United States, criticizing President Barack Obama’s policies toward Cuba and warning of the physical and mental effects imprisonment was having on Gross.
The campaign to get him out
Judy Gross’s public-relations blitz began in January 2013, when she created a website — BringAlanHome.org — and released a letter to Castro in which she urged him to “move forward” and “find a real way” for the U.S. and Cuban governments to speak to each other.
Last year, on the fourth anniversary of his arrest, Gross sent a letter to Obama in which he said he feared the U.S. government had “abandoned” him.
"Officials in your administration have expressed sympathy and called for my unconditional release, and I very much appreciate that. But it has not brought me home,” he said in the letter.
Earlier this month, on the fifth anniversary of his arrest, Judy Gross released a statement that detailed her husband’s declining physical and mental health. He lost more than 100 pounds and five teeth while in prison, as well as much of the sight in his right eye. Judy Gross also said her husband could “barely walk” due to chronic pain.
He refused to see his wife or daughter, or U.S. diplomats from the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, when they tried to visit him over the past few months. He refused all medical and dental care, his wife said.
“Enough is enough. My husband has paid a terrible price for serving his country and community,” Judy Gross said. “Alan is resolved that he will not endure another year imprisoned in Cuba, and I am afraid that we are at the end. 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."
What about the diplomatic efforts?
Numerous U.S. diplomats and lawmakers had attempted to bargain for Gross’ release, from former President Jimmy Carter, to former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), the president pro tempore of the U.S. Senate, led a bipartisan congressional delegation to urge for his release.
Leahy and Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Arizona) flew back with Gross from Cuba after his release on Wednesday, a senior administration official said.
Last week, Obama told Fusion’s Jorge Ramos that the U.S. government continued to be “in conversations” about Gross’ release through a “variety of channels.” A senior administration official said high-level discussions between the two governments began in the spring of 2013.
“We continue to be concerned about him. We think that he shouldn’t have been held in the first place,” Obama said last week, before adding that he didn’t have “any announcements.”
Brett LoGiurato is the senior national political correspondent at Fusion, where he covers all things 2016. He'll give you everything you need to know about politics, with a healthy side of puns.