American Alan Gross landed on US soil this morning, touching down with wife Judy at Andrews Air Force Base after Cuba released him after five years in prison. He was released on humanitarian grounds by the Cuban government at the request of the United States, a senior Obama administration official tells the AP. His release comes as part of a "landmark humanitarian prisoner exchange" that Obama will announce today, ABC News reports, as well as an overhaul in US-Cuba relations born from more than a year of "secret back-channel talks at the highest levels of both governments." Gross may have benefited from the involvement of none other than Pope Francis, who personally appealed to Obama and Castro to restart relations, reports the AP. The two leaders spoke for 45 minutes yesterday in the first such discussion since 1961. Obama is set to speak at noon today, reports CNN.
The AP reports the three Cubans that were released as part of the deal are members 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 US. Two of the Cuban Five were previously released after finishing their sentences. The New York Times adds that the trio weren't technically exchanged for Gross; rather, they were swapped for a US spy imprisoned for nearly 20 years in Cuba. The AP reports the spy is an unnamed non-American man who helped facilitate some of the most important Cuba-related counterintelligence prosecutions in recent decades, including those of the Cuba Five. (Read more Cuba stories.)