Dec 17, 2014 4:58 PM

Freed American endured years of declining health

The Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) Alan Gross spent five years wasting away in a Cuban prison, losing hope that he would ever be free and at one point apparently contemplating suicide. He dropped more than 100 pounds, developed hip problems and lost most of the vision in one eye.

On Wednesday, the 65-year-old American returned to Washington a free man.

"It's good to be home," he said in brief remarks at his lawyer's Washington office, where he stood in front of two U.S. flags and grinned, despite having lost teeth in prison.

The former federal subcontractor arrested in 2009 was freed as part of a historic announcement that the U.S. would re-establish diplomatic relations with Cuba. His detention had been a sticking point in improving relations between the countries, and Gross spoke supportively of President Barack Obama's move. He said history had shown that the nation's previous approach to its old foe was ineffective.

"Two wrongs never make a right," Gross said. "I truly hope that we can now get beyond these mutually belligerent policies."

Gross' wife, Judy, has called him a humanitarian and an idealist, someone who was "probably na ve" and did not realize the risks of going to Cuba to work for the federal government's U.S. Agency for International Development.

His wife and officials said he went to Cuba to set up Internet access for the communist island's small Jewish community. But a 2012 investigation by The Associated Press found he was using sensitive technology typically available only to governments, and the Internet connections Gross was establishing were intended to bypass local restrictions and be hard for the government to trace. The visit he was arrested on was his fifth trip for that purpose.

Cuba considers USAID's programs like the one Gross was working on illegal attempts by the U.S. to undermine its government. Gross was tried and sentenced to 15 years in prison.

In court in Cuba, the Maryland native called himself a "trusting fool" who never meant any harm to the Cuban government. But reports he wrote about his work showed he knew it was dangerous.

"This is very risky business in no uncertain terms," he wrote in one report after his third trip, and he repeated the same sentiment in a report after his fourth.

During the five years he was imprisoned, family members said, Gross never grew angry at the Cuban people, and on Wednesday he described the vast majority of Cubans as "incredibly kind, generous and talented."

In prison, he got along well with his jailors, his family has said. He watched Cuban baseball and even jammed with his jailors on a stringed instrument they gave him. One of his talents is being able to pick up and play almost any instrument.

He kept in touch with relatives through weekly phone calls and passed the time reading books and magazines sent by his wife. The Economist, The Atlantic and Washingtonian were favorites.

On Friday nights, Gross, who is Jewish, would take out a picture of a group of friends celebrating the sabbath and recite the prayers they would say together.

But prison was tough on Gross. His health was constantly an issue. In April, after an AP story revealed that USAID secretly created a "Cuban Twitter" communications network to stir unrest on the island shortly after Gross was arrested, he went on a hunger strike for more than a week.

His mother, who was in her 90s, persuaded him to start eating again. She died earlier this year and despite pleas from his family, Gross was not allowed to return to the United States for her funeral. After her death, Gross became withdrawn and seemed to contemplate ending his life.

"Life in prison is not a life worth living," he told his lawyer, Scott Gilbert, and vowed that "one way or the other" he wouldn't spend another birthday in prison.

Earlier, he had been more hopeful, dreaming of what he would do when he got out.

His older sister, Bonnie Rubinstein, said in 2012 that he wanted to watch a Cuban baseball game as a free man. He also wanted to eat ribs and drink scotch. His brother-in-law, Rubinstein's husband, even purchased a 12-year-old single-malt scotch he planned to save until his brother-in-law got home.

But when Gross' lawyer told him Tuesday by phone that he would soon be free, he responded with stunned silence, a family spokeswoman said.

"I'll believe it when I see it," he finally said.

A military plane arrived to take him home Wednesday, and Gross and his wife walked to it hand-in-hand.

Onboard was a bowl of popcorn, another thing he had missed, and a corned beef sandwich on rye. There were also latkes with applesauce and sour cream in honor of the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, which began Tuesday.

When the pilot announced they were leaving Cuban airspace, Gross stood up and took a deep breath. He spoke with the president by telephone while in the air. And he called his sister and two daughters.

"I'm free," he told them.


Follow Jessica Gresko at .


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