HAVANA/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Cuba has released American aid worker Alan Gross after five years in prison in a reported prisoner exchange with Havana that the United States said on Wednesday heralds an overhaul of U.S. policy toward Cuba.
A U.S. official said Gross was released on humanitarian grounds. CNN reported a prisoner exchange that also included Cuba releasing a U.S. intelligence source and the United States releasing three Cuban intelligence agents.
U.S. President Barack Obama was due to make a statement at noon (1700 GMT) on Cuba, the White House said, and U.S. official said Obama would announce a shift in Cuba policy. Cuban President Raul Castro was also set to make a statement at that time.
Cuba arrested Gross, now 65, on Dec. 3, 2009, and later convicted the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) subcontractor to 15 years in prison for importing banned technology and trying to establish clandestine Internet service for Cuban Jews.
The United States and Cuba have been locked in hostilities for more than half a century, and Obama is sure to face howls of protest in Washington and within the Cuban exile community in Miami for freeing the Cuban intelligence agents after 16 years in prison. Their freedom will be hailed as a resounding victory at home for Raul Castro.
The payoff for Obama was the release of Gross, whose lawyer and family have described him as mentally vanquished, gaunt, hobbling and missing five teeth.
Cuba arrested Gross in 2009 and later sentenced him to 15 years for attempting to establish clandestine Internet service for Cuban Jews under a program run by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). His case raised alarms about USAID’s practice of hiring private citizens to carry out secretive assignments in hostile places.
Cuba considers USAID another instrument of continual U.S. harassment dating to the 1959 revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power. Fidel Castro retired in 2008, handing power to his brother Raul.
The United States has said it wants to promote democracy in communist-led Cuba, a one-party state that represses political opponents and controls the media. American officials accused Cuba of taking Gross hostage as a ploy to get their spies back.
The three Cuban intelligence agents, jailed since 1998, are Gerardo Hernandez, 49, Antonio Guerrero, 56, and Ramon Labañino, 51. Two others had been released before on completing their sentences - Rene Gonzalez, 58, and Fernando Gonzalez, 51.
The so-called Cuban Five were convicted for spying on anti-Castro exile groups in Florida and monitoring U.S. military installations. They are hailed as anti-terrorist heroes in Cuba for defending the country by infiltrating exile groups in Florida at a time when anti-Castro extremists were bombing Cuban hotels.
Two were due to be released in coming years but Gerardo Hernandez, the leader, received a double life sentence for conspiracy in Cuba’s shooting down of two U.S. civilian aircraft in 1996, killing four Cuban-Americans.
The United States had flatly refused to swap Gross for the agents, but the White House came under increasing pressure to intervene from Gross’ allies and foreign policy experts as Gross’ health deteriorated.
Gross had already lost some 100 pounds (46 kg) when he went on a five-day hunger strike in April, and upon his 65th birthday in May he vowed to die rather than turn 66 in prison.
Gross’ release could lead Obama to begin normalizing relations with Cuba, which would stir fierce opposition from well-financed and politically organized Cuban exiles, who resist engagement with the communist-led island.
Although Obama said “we have to continue to update our policies” on Cuba over a year ago, until now he had yet to signal change.
The president has authority to unilaterally gut the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba and allow U.S. citizens to travel freely to the island. His State Department can remove Cuba from a list of state sponsors of terrorism, an outdated designation that carries with it further economic sanctions.
Proponents of normalization note that Cuba has blamed the embargo for its economic shortcomings for decades and uses U.S. aggression as justification for stifling dissent.
Despite bilateral animosity, the two countries have been quietly engaged on a host of issues such as immigration, drug interdiction and oil-spill mitigation.
Writing by Daniel Trotta and Doina Chiacu; Editing by Howard Goller