Alan Gross’ release from a Cuban jail on Wednesday helped pave the way for an end to the diplomatic standoff between the U.S. and Cuba.
It also meant a lot for some in the Bethesda community who knew the Potomac man before he was arrested and imprisoned by the Cuban government in 2009.
“This is about helping Alan feel that we didn’t forget him,” said Union Hardware owner David Goldberg, who put up a banner reading “Welcome Home ALAN” above his Wisconsin Avenue storefront upon hearing the news.
Within a few minutes, Goldberg said Gross got word of the sign and sent him this video message via a cellphone.
Goldberg said he first met Gross, 65, in high school and had stayed in touch as best as possible over the last five years. Gross, who was arrested by Cuban authorities for his work on behalf of the U.S. Agency for International Development, sent his condolences to Goldberg when Goldberg’s dad died a few years ago.
Gross was given a 15-year prison sentence and accused of spying for the U.S. His family and supporters have maintained that Gross was on an international development mission for USAID, helping small Jewish communities in Cuba develop internet access.
“What a blessing it is,” Gross said on Wednesday after returning to Washington. “Thank you President Obama for everything you have done today and leading up to today.”
Rep. Chris Van Hollen, a Kensington resident, was among the leading voices pushing the U.S. government to secure Gross’ release.
He accompanied Gross’ wife Judy and Senators Patrick Leahy and Jeff Flake to Cuba on Wednesday before the group flew back to Andrews Air Force Base with Gross.
In a statement, Van Hollen said Gross was happy to be freed from prison:
I have had the good fortune of knowing Alan Gross since the early 2000s, and, ever since he was imprisoned in Cuba, his wife, Judy, has been tireless in seeking his release. It has been an honor to work with her and many of my colleagues in the Congress to set Alan free. And today, I had the privilege of accompanying Judy Gross, as well as Senator Leahy, Senator Flake, and Judy’s very dedicated attorney, Scott Gilbert, on the flight to Cuba to bring Alan home. Alan Gross did not ask to shape history. He was unjustly swept up in the conflict between the U.S. and Cuba. But, in the end, Alan Gross proved to be a catalyst for change. After five years in a Cuban prison, Alan Gross is not only thrilled to be free, but also welcomes the new approach to Cuba and its people.
It was only a few weeks ago, upon the fifth anniversary of Gross’ imprisonment, that Judy Gross said she was, “afraid that we are at the end,” because of Gross’ deteriorating health.
He had lost more than 100 pounds, could barely walk due to chronic pain and lost much of the sight in his right eye.
In July, Gross said goodbye to his wife and daughter and had refused to see them again as long as he was still a prisoner. He had also refused most other visitors, including the new Chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, which represents the U.S. government in Cuba.
Judy Gross had to sell the family’s house after losing the family’s primary wage earner. Their daughter Shira got married last summer.
Goldberg said he first met Gross when Gross was a youth advisor for a Jewish service organization. They were members of the same synagogue and Goldberg had run into Judy Gross at Suburban Hospital, where she works.
“I have continued to be connected with him during this ordeal, but am reluctant to say more about this as the story is him,” Goldberg said. “He simply liked to stay connected, even in his situation.”
Photos via @ChrisVanHollen, David Goldberg