Just a couple of hours after his return to American soil following more than five years in a Cuban prison, a government subcontractor from Maryland expressed gratitude for the efforts to restore his freedom and support for the president's move toward restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba.
"A judicious lesson that I have learned from this experience is that freedom is not free," Alan Gross said Wednesday afternoon.
Gross was released Wednesday morning as part of an agreement that also included the release of three Cubans jailed in the United States, senior U.S. officials said.
Gross' lawyer, Scott Gilbert, told him Tuesday morning that he would be released. After a long pause, Gross said, "I'll believe it when I see it."
On the plane Wednesday morning, a bowl of popcorn was waiting for Gross -- it was one of the things he said he missed while in prison. He also had a corned beef sandwich on rye with mustard and latkes.
President Barack Obama called him on the flight home to congratulate him, and Gross thanked him for getting him out of prison.
He arrived at Joint Base Andrews around 11:15 a.m. and was greeted by several members of Congress. Secretary of State John Kerry landed at Andrews about a half hour later and met with Gross. They watched the president's remarks together at noon.
Gross' release is part of a larger shift in U.S. relations with Cuba. Obama announced the re-establishment of diplomatic relations as well as an easing in economic and travel restrictions on Cuba Wednesday, declaring an end to America's "outdated approach" to the communist island in a historic shift that aims to bring an end to a half-century of Cold War enmity.
"Isolation has not worked," Obama said in remarks from the White House. "It's time for a new approach."
Despite Obama's declaration, the Cuba embargo was passed by Congress, and only lawmakers can revoke it. That appears unlikely to happen soon given the largely negative response to Obama's actions from Republicans who will take full control of Capitol Hill in January.
"Relations with the Castro regime should not be revisited, let alone normalized, until the Cuban people enjoy freedom -- and not one second sooner," said House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. "There is no `new course' here, only another in a long line of mindless concessions to a dictatorship that brutalizes its people and schemes with our enemies."
At a Wednesday afternoon news conference, Gross thanked everyone who helped restore his freedom.
“I also feel compelled to share with you my utmost respect for and fondness of the people of Cuba," Gross said. "In no way are they responsible for the ordeal to which my family and I have been subjected. To me, Cubanos, or at least most of them, are incredibly kind, generous and talented. It pains me to see them treated so unjustly as a consequence of two governments’ mutually belligerent policies.
“Five-and-a-half decades of history show us that such belligerence inhibits better judgment. Two wrongs never make a right. I truly hope that we can now get beyond these mutually belligerent policies and I was very happy to hear what the president had to say today.
"It was particularly cool to be sitting next to the secretary of state as he was hearing about his job description for the next couple of months.”
Gross, who had lived in Montgomery County, was working in Cuba as a government subcontractor when he was arrested in December 2009. He had been held since then, and his attorney said earlier this year that Gross could not take life in prison much longer and had said his goodbyes to his wife, Judy, and the younger of his two daughters.
Judy Gross said earlier this month that her husband was "literally wasting away" in confinement, losing more than 100 pounds and going mostly blind in one eye, reported NBC News' Andrea Mitchell. Recently, his teeth began breaking, and he has lost about five.
The news of Gross' release came as a surprise Wednesday morning. NBC News confirmed around 9 a.m. that Gross was on a plane en route to the U.S.
Officials said Gross was released on humanitarian grounds by the Cuban government at the request of the Obama administration.
U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said Gross' release brings him "great joy."
"This day would not have been possible without the tireless advocacy of Alan’s wife, Judy, who never gave up," a statement from Van Hollen said in part. He also thanked the Obama administration.
Gross was detained 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 to be illegal attempts by the U.S. to undermine its government, and Gross was tried and sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Obama administration officials considered Gross' imprisonment an impediment to improving relations with Cuba, but the surprise deal could help clear the way for broader discussions on strengthening ties and perhaps ending the decades-long U.S. economic embargo against its long-time communist foe.
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.
Earlier this year, Gross went on a hunger strike for more than a week, saying in a statement that he was fasting to protest his treatment by the U.S. and Cuban governments. Gross said he suspended his fast because his mother had asked him to stop. About two months later, his mother, Evelyn Gross, died at 92.
In 2012, Alan Gross brought a lawsuit against the U.S. government, saying he wasn't adequately trained or warned about the dangers of working in Cuba, although he wrote in one report on his work that what he was doing was "very risky business in no uncertain terms."
A 2012 AP investigation also found he was using sensitive technology typically available only to governments.
Gross' $60 million lawsuit blamed the U.S. government and the contractor for which he was working, Maryland-based Development Alternatives Inc., for failing to appropriately prepare him. The lawsuit did not say how much each party should pay or how Gross' attorneys arrived at the $60 million figure.
The Gross family settled with Development Alternatives Inc. for an undisclosed amount in May 2013.
A lower-court judge previously threw out Gross' lawsuit against the government last year, saying federal law bars lawsuits against the government based on injuries suffered in foreign countries.
Gross' lawyers have appealed, telling a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit that Gross should be allowed to sue.
The panel was expected to issue a written ruling on the case at a later date.