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MIAMI (CBSMiami) – As the impact of President Barack Obama’s historic visit to Cuba continues to unfold, Chief Investigative Reporter Michele Gillen spoke exclusively with Alan Gross, the American contractor who had been held prisoner in Cuba for five years.
Here is part 3 of her interview.
“It was courageous. He made a courageous statement and I was proud of my President,” reflected Alan Gross in response to the President’s visit to Cuba and headline making messages.
While visiting Miami, Gross listened to the President’s addresses and told Gillen that the words that echoed in his heart were when President Obama announced, “I believe citizens should be free to speak their mind without fear.”
Seeing an American President on Cuban soil, and standing just steps from Raul Castro while speaking of the need to respect human rights, was a surreal and welcome moment for Gross. What was the message he heard?
“He said to the Cuban people, have hope, have faith, things will be better. I heard him say to the government of Cuba, respect human rights, stop abusing your power,” said Gross.
Gross’ five year incarceration in Cuba and ultimate release on humanitarian grounds as a part of a swap for five Cuban spies was said to be pivotal for the warming of U.S./Cuban relations that led to the President’s visit to the island nation.
Gillen and Gross discussed Raul Castro’s response to a reporter who asked about political prisoners jailed in Cuba today.
“Raul Castro said ‘What political prisoners? Give me a list, give me name. And there was silence’,” Gillen described the moment that gave pause at his press conference with President Obama and hundreds of journalists.
“You could start with all the cell mates that I had. Out of the 20 people, 17 were political prisoners in my opinion, including me,” said Gross.
If he had been in that auditorium with Castro, what would Gross have liked to have said.
“Its baloney. There are thousands, if not thousands upon thousands of political prisoners in Cuba today,” responded Gross.
With affection and respect, Gross said one of his greatest ties to Miami is that one of his former cell mates, a man known as Rolando, now lives here. He calls him a hero for having escaped Cuba and then returning to bring more of his family back to the US. He was arrested and incarcerated for more than a decade.
“He is a true hero. He represents the Cuban experience for many Cuban Americans. We made an oath together that when we were both free, we would go to the Versailles restaurant in Little Havana and we did and it was wonderful,” recalled Gross.
“When you toasted together, what was the toast,” asked Gillen.
“To freedom,” he said.
For his support of lifting the embargo and the circumstances of his release, Gross readily admits he has detractors.
“Some of the people in South Florida have told me to crawl under a rock in South Florida and die. I am not going to do that. And their sentiments are misplaced,” he said.
Headlines leading up and during to the President’s trip regarding the use of the internet and the need for broadband had a personal significance for Gross.
Gross ended up in prison because of his work on the island which he saud was intended to expand the country’s internet technology. So what was his reaction to American internet executives joining the President on this visit?
“I think it vindicates the work that I was doing,” he said.
If he had a message for the people of Cuba what would it be?
“Don’t give up. Never give up. Keep hope and faith and know that people love you. And that there are people working toward a better day,” he said.
“Anger is an anchor that weighs us down. If we can let go of the anchor just a little bit, we can move forward,” head added.
Gross said the proverbial ball is now in Cuba’s court and that it needs to act.