Alan Gross, the Maryland man who was imprisoned in Cuba for five years, recounted his experiences in prison on Tuesday and called for an end to U.S. trade sanctions against Cuba.
Days before President Obama leaves for a historic trip to the Cuban capital, Gross spoke at an event Tuesday at the National Press Club, thanking those who helped bring him home.
“In this room, in this community, in this country and beyond -- thank you,” Grossman said. "Freedom is bliss.”
Gross is a former federal subcontractor who was arrested in Cuba in 2009. His wife and others said he was there to set up Internet access for the small Jewish community on the communist island. He was released Dec. 2014 as part of an announcement by Obama that the U.S. would restore diplomatic relations with Cuba after five decades.
Gross described difficult conditions in prison.
“The first year was a year of sensory deprivation. I lost 70 pounds the first year,” Gross said.
Gross was detained with constant, bright fluorescent lighting overhead and bugs in the food, he said. For his first year, he had a “lack of any mental stimulation whatsoever,” he said.
“The worst part of my imprisonment was isolation,” he said.
After the first year, Gross had more contact outside the prison. He said he recieved visits from Cuban officials, who brought him food and reading materials. Sens. Bernie Sanders, Jon Tester and Heidi Heitkamp visited Gross in 2011 while he was in prison, a news release Sanders previously issued said.
Gross said the senators brought the “largest bag of peanut M&Ms I’ve ever seen” and many hocolate chip cookies. The senators also brought reading materials -- but each senator brought the exact same periodicals.
Next month, Gross will turn 67 years old, he said. He said he would visit Cuba again.
“I would return to Cuba in a heartbeat,” he said.
He wants to see the beaches on the island and introduce his wife to his fellow prisoners and their families, he said.
Gross expressed gratitude to the people who facilitated his release, and frustration with the U.S. government.
He called for the U.S. to end trade sanctions against Cuba. President Obama has been restoring relations with Cuba for more than a year. However, the embargo remains in place.
“Cry me a river, build me a bridge and get over the failure of the embargo by lifting it,” Gross said.
He even said he sees an opportunity for his home state to trade with Cuba.
“One of the reasons they don’t have a lot of poultry in Cuba is because they don’t have feed,” he told News 4's Derrick Ward, suggesting that Maryland could find a new market for chicken feed if trade opened up with Cuba.
Gross wants to change another government policy -- this one for personal reasons. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear his lawsuit against the U.S. government because Gross was harmed outside the U.S., NBC News reported. Gross wants to overturn laws that allowed his case to be thrown out.
“After the elections, I am going to try and find a champion in the Senate and a champion in the House who will look at the foreign exclusion clause that got my suit against the U.S. government thrown out of court,” he said.
NBC News also reported Gross reached a $3.2 million settlement with the government in another related case.
Gross needed several teeth replaced when he returned from Cuba. He flashed a smile at the National Press Club event and called his dentist “an engineer and an artist.”
“My wife says that I whistle a lot in a very irritating way these days. I’m a very happy camper. I’m free,” he said.