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Rep. Van Hollen: Alan Gross' Release A 'Miraculous' Moment

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

We continue now with our coverage of today's announcement that the United States will restore full diplomatic relations with Cuba for the first time since 1961. And that USAID contractor, Alan Gross, has been freed after five years' captivity in Cuban prison.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

I'm joined now by Congressman Chris Van Hollen, Democrat of Maryland. He's one of the lawmakers who have been pressing for Alan Gross's release and he was part of the delegation that flew to Cuba to bring Mr. Gross home. Congressman, welcome to the program.

CONGRESSMAN CHRIS VAN HOLLEN: It's great to be with you, Melissa.

BLOCK: Can you describe the moment of Alan Gross's release today?

VAN HOLLEN: It was a miraculous moment for those of us who have been working so hard over five years to secure his release, especially for his wife, Judy, who's been tireless in her efforts. And Alan was clearly overwhelmed by the moment where he knew he was now going to get on the airplane and fly back to the United States.

BLOCK: What happened on that flight back - and especially when he touched down for the first time again on U.S. soil?

VAN HOLLEN: Well, first of all, he was greeted with a bowl of popcorn. There are certain cravings he's had while he's been in prison. And so he was greeted with a bowl of popcorn and then a phone call from the president of the United States.

BLOCK: This was on the flight itself.

VAN HOLLEN: This is on the flight back from Havana to Andrews Air Force Base. There was a lot of catching up to do. And when we entered U.S. airspace - a big hurray and Alan put his hands up in the air and said we're home.

BLOCK: How would you describe Mr. Gross's health? We did hear earlier this month from his wife, Judy, on the five-year anniversary of his imprisonment and she warned that he was literally wasting away, had lost a hundred pounds, could barely walk.

VAN HOLLEN: Well, he's very frail. And if you, you know, looked at his belt right now he's got a lot of holes in the belt that are not being used anymore because he's lost so much weight. But I will say, at least today, he was in great spirits.

BLOCK: There has been, as you know, a lot of criticism of this deal, and let me run by you some of that criticism. Republican Senator Marco Rubio, who is Cuban-American, calls it part of a long record of coddling dictators and tyrants that this administration has established. And another Cuban-American, the Republican Congressman Mario Diaz Balart, calls President Obama the appeaser in chief. How do you respond to that?

VAN HOLLEN: Well, of course this is nonsense and I think the burden is on the critics to show how the last 54 years of American policy has accomplished the goals of opening up Cuba and creating reforms. In fact, trying to isolate Cuba has been a miserable failure. After all, the Castro brothers have now survived more than eight presidents. So more communication, more travel, more trade, more opening up of Cuba will create more exposure to freedom and opportunities for the Cuban people.

So I think the people who should be most afraid of this greater engagement are the people in Cuba who want to limit people's freedoms, whereas those who want to expand freedom in Cuba should be supportive of greater engagement with the rest of the world.

BLOCK: Does that involve a real leap of faith, though, if the anti-democratic structures are still very much in place in Cuba?

VAN HOLLEN: But the way to weaken those anti-democratic structures overtime is to have more exposure - expose those institutions to more free-market activity, to more free ideas. This isn't going to be something that happens overnight. But after all it hasn't really happened for the last 54 years, so let's get started now.

BLOCK: Congressman Van Hollen, thanks for talking with us today.

VAN HOLLEN: Thank you.

BLOCK: That's Congressman Chris Van Hollen, Democrat of Maryland. He flew with Alan Gross back to the United States from Cuba today. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.