WASHINGTON, Dec. 17 (UPI) -- A trio of U.S. lawmakers -- two Democrats and a Republican -- traveled to Havana in the wee hours of Wednesday to escort newly released USAID contractor Alan Gross back to the United States.
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Rep. Chris Van Hollen, Jr., D-Md., spoke with CNN about their involvement in Gross's release Wednesday, which was followed by a historic White House announcement that the United States would seek a normalization in relations with Cuba.
"It was a very emotional moment," Van Hollen recalled, describing Gross's reunion with his wife, Judy, at the airport in Havana. "He was elated, big smile on his face."
As the plane carrying the lawmakers, Gross and wife Judy, crossed into U.S. airspace, Gross lifted his arms and cheered. "He was clearly glad to be home," Van Hollen said.
Alan Gross. Back on U.S. soil. pic.twitter.com/Ut5jvdQGg2— Jeff Flake (@JeffFlake) December 17, 2014
Flake, a longtime proponent of a change in U.S.-Cuba relations, applauded the president's decision to overhaul the policy. That sentiment is also shared by Alan Gross, Van Hollen said.
"After having spent nearly five years in Cuban prison, [Gross] knows how important it is to be free, and he believes that the president's policy will, over time, lead to more freedom for the Cuban people."
In a press conference, Gross said renewed relations are "a game changer, which I fully support."
Gross was arrested after traveling to Cuba under the auspices of the U.S. Agency for International Development, delivering phones to Jewish residents on the island. Cuban officials claimed he was trying to foment a popular uprising.
Flake, Leahy and Van Hollen were part of a delegation that met with Cuban President Raul Castro in 2013 to discuss Gross's case. Gross, a resident of Rockville, Md., is also a constituent of Van Hollen's.