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MIAMI (CBSMiami) — He was perhaps the most high-profile American prisoner ever to be jailed in Cuba.
His imprisonment and ultimate release is considered by many to be a linchpin for the U.S. diplomatic breakthroughs with Cuba that are unfolding at warp speed. In fact, this weekend President Barack Obama will visit the island nation in what will be a historic visit.
An electronics specialist who had worked in some 50 countries setting up communications, CBS4 Chief Investigator Michele Gillen reports that his life came to a screeching halt when he turned his attention to Cuba and inadvertently helped change history.
Alan Gross stood steps from the front lawn of the White House wearing a broad smile. On a sunny March day in Washington D.C., he walked amid a crowd of tourists but his connection to the man in the Oval Office behind him, the President of the United States, was quite personal and his gratitude to him was palpable.
“Thank you. I will never be able to thank all the people who participated in some say, my redemption. Realistically, the decision to bring me home was in one office and that is in the Oval Office. So I am eternally grateful to the president,” Gross told Gillen.
As he faces his 67th birthday, Gross exudes happiness; a sense of joy walking on U.S. soil and being a free man.
Gillen wondered, “Did you ever have moments thinking you would not be back on U.S. soil?”
“No. No. I always knew I would come back. Always,” he replied.
Gross says he relentlessly clung to that hope for five years as he sat incarcerated in a Cuban jail cell.
“The first time I heard the clanking of the door behind me. The cell door, that was pretty dark,” he reflected.
Within hours of his arrest in Havana, he said he was interrogated by Cuban police for allegedly being a spy for either the U.S. or Israel.
“They threatened to hang me. They threatened to pull out my finger nails. They said I would never see the light of day. And I didn’t see the light of day for more than 20 minutes for the first year,” Gross shared.
As U.S. government contractor he was sought out and hired, he said, to set up internet connections in Cuba in what turned out to be a pilot project for the Jewish community.
“The project was really straight forward. It was a technical project, bring in the equipment, set it up. Make sure it worked. No content whatsoever,” said Gross.
“The goal of getting that equipment into Cuba? What was the goal,” asked Gillen.
“The goal was to bring broadband connectivity to Cuba. That was it,” he responded.
At least that is what Gross said he was led to believe.
“There was certain information that was kept from me,” he said.
“What was that,” asked Gillen.
“That it is illegal to distribute anything funded, in full or in part, by the US government,” he said.
Gillen queried “And you didn’t know that?”
“No,” Gross insisted.
Meanwhile, he was shuttling back and forth to the Cuban island from his Maryland home. On his fifth visit he was arrested, incarcerated, and more than one year later tried and sentenced to 15 years in prison for essentially importing banned technology.
While his project was sponsored by and funded by a U.S. government development agency, the USAID, Gross said he quickly found he was on his own.
“At one point in time, you were in a very small cell. Did you say to yourself ‘it’s just a matter of days and I am going to get out of here’,” Gillen asked.
“I thought that for sure,” said Gross. “Then, as each day passed, I thought where is my government? When are they going to take me home? And where the hell are they?”
Did he feel abandoned by the U.S. government?
“Yes I did. Yes I did. Until I was released and then I felt they saved me. But I know better, it was really my wife and my lawyer,” said Gross.
His beloved wife is Judy Gross. For five years she championed Herculean efforts to get her husband released; holding rallies and meeting with members of Congress. She also met with private lawyers that Gross had to hire.
Judy Gross ended up selling their home to pay the legal bills.
“This process from captivity to freedom. There were many tolls, including financial,” asked Gillen.
“Oh gosh yes,” he replied.
Year after year, Gross’ health deteriorated. He forced himself to walk a thousand steps each, walking in circles. He said he shunned much of the food that was served to him.
“There was a lot of infestation in my food. So I wouldn’t eat a lot of things if it moved,” reflected Gross. “I lost 70 pounds the first year.”
But he was determined to survive, thinking of the history of his family and those who suffered, and survived, in the Holocaust.
“I thought about them every day. It was almost a conscious thing,” said Gross.
He lost track of time, weight and, from lack of nutrition, five teeth which he has held onto along with a sense of humor which he says kept him alive.
Gross said he tried to “find something to laugh about every day.”
He said he owes his life to his Cuban cellmates who shared the food their families brought .
“I consider them my family. My cellmates and I shared everything. And when my cellmates families had visitation they brought food. They shared their food with me,” he explained to Gillen while showing her recent pictures of one of those cellmates who is also now free.
Gross said they shared a toast to freedom in Little Havana.
At one point, Gross said he only cared about of finding a way to see his mother before she passed from cancer. Gross and his supporters were willing to do anything for him just to be released for a few days.
“When my mother died. That was very dark. I think the government of Cuba was extremely cruel to my mother and stupidly so,” he said.
Gross said he did what he could, but it wasn’t enough for his Cuban captors.
“I signed an oath to Raul Castro, there were people who would trade places with me so I could go and visit my mother and the government of Cuba just did not respond,” said Gross. “It was unforgivable. I have a lot of forgiveness in my heart. That will not be forgiven.”
Over the course of five years Judy Gross enlisted the help of hundreds of members of Congress. Ultimately, with a new team of lawyers, a new strategy was contemplated. A swap for Cuban spies which Gross said wasn’t considered to be easy because it was swapping spies for a non-spy.
“It was about the government of Cuba poking Uncle Sam in the eye. Them using me as a peon, as a hostage, in order to get a ransom. In order to trade me for Los Cincos. For the five Cuban intelligence officers,” he said.
“So at the end of the day Cuba got exactly what it wanted,” asked Gillen.
“I don’t know. I know I got what I wanted. Although I can never recover the five years I lost, I am now free and can look ahead,” he said.
Asked if he thought the Cuban government believed he was a spy, Gross replied “No absolutely not.”
So why did he think it took so long for him to be released?
“Because our government, our State Department, could not get their head around the idea of trading a non-spy for five spies which was unfortunate for me. Had I been a spy I would have been home much sooner. But I wasn’t and so a plan had to be devised to find the right kind of fruit,” said Gross.
And those who today may be convinced he was a spy?
“Well they are wrong. They are wrong. I wasn’t a spy. Simple as that. If I had been a spy, I would have been home a lot sooner,” he replied.
It was one year ago he was released. He said it seems like yesterday that he was aboard Air Force One on his way back to America.
“When you felt U.S. soil was beneath you, what surged through you” asked Gillen.
“Oh, I wanted to kiss the ground,” a radiant Gross exuded.
“I lost five years of my life. Five teeth. One hundred and ten pounds, and maybe a little bit of my sanity. I am not sure. But I have the feeling that the people of Cuba, Cubans whether they live in Cuba or are Cuban-Americans, I feel like we are family now. Es nuestro familia.“
What is this chapter of freedom like for him now?
“It’s outstanding. What can I say. My wife says I’m always annoying her because I am always whistling (laughs), I am happy. I am a happy camper. I am much happier now than I have ever been in my life. I really appreciate the freedom I have. Having the ability to walk in a straight line for extended distances is great after being stuck in a cell walking around in circles for five years,” he said.
And any sense of anger and if so to whom is it directed?
“I am not fond of what the Cuban government did to me. I got to leave the island. They are still there. I feel very bad for the people of Cuba. Somebody asked me if I have any bitterness toward the Cubans. Absolutely not. As far as I am concerned, 11.3 million people are imprisoned on that island,” he said.
Gross then reflected on the beauty of the island and the people of Cuba.
“All Cubans, all Cubanos, living on the island are heroes, what they have had to endure all these years,” he said.
Meanwhile as he looked upon the White House, he offered a message to President Obama just days before the leaves for the island nation.
“I again offer my gratitude and wish him the best of luck.”