- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Alan Gross‘ first taste of freedom was popcorn.

After commenting that it was something he missed while being held captive in Cuba, U.S. officials had a big bowl waiting for him on the plane that would bring him back to the United States.

He followed it up with a corned beef sandwich on rye and some latkes to celebrate Hanukkah.

It was the best food he’d had since his arrest — except for maybe the bags of chocolates that visitors were able to bring him sometimes.

“Even in Cuba, M&Ms melt in your mouth, not in your hand,” Mr. Gross joked.

After five years imprisoned in Cuba, the Maryland native is free, the result of a deal the White House cut that not only led to an exchange of prisoners, but also signals a more open relationship between the adversarial nations.

In addition to Mr. Gross, a top-level but unidentified spy who spent nearly 20 years in prison also was released by Cuba.

President Obama said the agent’s sacrifice was known to only a few, but the information the spy provided was invaluable in catching Cuban operatives in the U.S.

In exchange, the president agreed to release three members of the “Cuban Five,” a notorious spy ring convicted in 2001 of trying to steal U.S. military secrets.

One released member, Gerardo Hernandez, also was convicted of conspiracy in the deaths of four Florida pilots who were shot down in 1996 by a Cuban plane.

Mr. Gross said he supports the new openness between the two countries.

“Five and a half decades of history show us that such belligerence inhibits better judgment,” he told reporters at a press conference in Washington. “Two wrongs never made a right.”

Mr. Gross said he had no part in espionage. In 2009, he said, he traveled to the island nation to help improve the Cuban Jewish community’s Internet access. Instead, he was arrested by the Communist government for trying to undermine the party. Fidel and Raul Castro and other Cuban leaders have long viewed U.S. aid programs as thinly veiled attempts to gain influence in the country.

Mr. Gross was sentenced to 15 years in prison. He said he never meant to harm the Cuban government but called himself a “trusting fool” for getting ensnared in controversy.

After meeting with Secretary of State John F. Kerry, speaking on the phone with President Obama and reuniting with his family, one of Mr. Gross‘ first stops on U.S. soil may be medical attention.

Poor dental care has led to several of his teeth falling out. While in prison, Mr. Gross lost more than 100 pounds and went on several hunger strikes. The Associated Press reported that he also developed problems with his hips and lost some vision in his right eye.

When he marked his 65th birthday in May, he was ominously quoted as saying he would make sure it was his last one in Cuba “one way or the other.”

Mr. Gross, who is Jewish, was in much higher spirits at the press conference and said he was thankful that he will be able to spend the holidays with his family.

“Today’s the first day of Hanukkah, and I guess so far it’s the best Hanukkah that I’ll be celebrating for a long time,” he said.

Mr. Gross also said he drew strength from the religious communities nationwide that prayed for him.

“It was crucial to my survival knowing that I was not forgotten,” he said. “Your prayers and actions have been comforting, reassuring and sustaining.”

He didn’t address whether he would return to Cuba one day, but he did say that the Cuban people are “incredibly kind, generous and talented.”

“In no way are they responsible for the ordeal to which myself and my family have been subjected,” he said. “It pains me to see them treated so unjustly as one consequence of two governments’ mutually belligerent policies.”

Mr. Gross thanked his family, thanked his attorneys and other representatives who have been fighting for his freedom, thanked the members of government who worked to bring him home, and thanked his supporters nationwide.

“I am incredibly blessed, finally, to have the freedom to resume a positive and constructive life,” he said.

He ended with simple words that seemed to sum it all up:

“It’s good to be home.”

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