Cuba releases US prisoner Alan Gross

FILE - In this Nov. 27, 2012 file photo provided by James L. Berenthal, jailed American Alan Gross poses for a photo during a visit by Rabbi Elie Abadie and U.S. lawyer James L. Berenthal at Finlay military hospital as he serves a prison sentence in Havana, Cuba. AP sources: American Alan Gross released from Cuba after 5 years in prison. (AP Photo/James L. Berenthal, File)

WASHINGTON (AP) — American Alan Gross was released from a Cuban prison after five years Wednesday, a surprise move that could pave the way for a major shift in U.S. policy toward the communist island nation, senior Obama administration officials said.

Gross, 65, was on an American government plane bound for the U.S. Wednesday morning after being released on humanitarian grounds by the Cuban government at the request of the Obama administration. As part of the secret negotiations to secure his release, the U.S. was releasing three Cuban jailed in Florida for spying.

Obama administration officials have considered Gross’ imprisonment an impediment to improving relations with Cuba.

Click image to view photo gallery. (AP Photo/Sen. Jeff Flake)
Click image to view photo gallery. (AP Photo/Sen. Jeff Flake)

President Barack Obama was to address the nation on Cuba at noon Wednesday, the White House said, and U.S. officials speaking on condition of anonymity said he was expected to announce Gross’ release. They were not authorized to be identified by name before Obama’s remarks.

Bonnie Rubinstein, Gross’ sister, heard the news from a cousin, who saw it on television.

“We’re like screaming and jumping up and down,” she said in a brief telephone interview from her home in Texas.

Gross was detained in December 2009 while working to set up Internet access as a subcontractor for the U.S. government’s U.S. Agency for International Development, which does work promoting democracy in the communist country. It was his fifth trip to Cuba to work with Jewish communities on setting up Internet access that bypassed local censorship.

Cuba considers USAID’s programs illegal attempts by the U.S. to undermine its government, and Gross was tried and sentenced to 15 years in prison.

The three Cubans released in exchange for Gross are part of the so-called Cuban Five — a group of men who were part of the “Wasp Network” sent by Cuba’s then-President Fidel Castro to spy in South Florida. The men, who are hailed as heroes in Cuba, were convicted in 2001 in Miami on charges including conspiracy and failure to register as foreign agents in the U.S.

Two of the Cuban Five were previously released after finishing their sentences.

In a statement marking the fifth anniversary of Gross’ detention earlier this month, Obama hinted that his release could lead to a thaw in relations with Cuba.

“The Cuban Government’s release of Alan on humanitarian grounds would remove an impediment to more constructive relations between the United States and Cuba,” Obama said in a statement.

The president has taken some steps to ease U.S. restrictions on Cuba after Raul Castro took over as president in 2010 from his ailing brother. He has sought to ease travel and financial restrictions on Americans with family in Cuba, but has resisted calls to drop the embargo.

Obama and Raul Castro shook hands and exchanged pleasantries last year while both attended a memorial service in South Africa for Nelson Mandela.

The surprise prisoner swap has echoes of the deal the U.S. cut earlier this year to secure the release of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who had been held by the Taliban. In exchange for his release in May, the U.S. turned over five Taliban prisoners held at the Guantanamo Bay detention center.

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