The agreement to free Alan Gross after five years in a Cuban prison was reached following more than a year of secret back-channel talks and through the persistence of several key individuals, including Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy and his staff, and Pope Francis.
As chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on the State Department and Foreign Operations, Leahy had worked for several years to secure Gross' release, including traveling to Cuba twice, and was on the plane with him upon his return to the U.S.
"And I am especially proud of the quiet and persistent leadership of Sen. Patrick Leahy, who has been instrumental throughout the delicate discussions that led to the release of Mr. Gross and to this historic foreign policy breakthrough," said fellow Democrat Rep. Peter Welch of Vermont, according to The Burlington Free Press
While Leahy has been out in front of the cameras calling for a change in U.S. policy toward Cuba for years, it was the behind-the-scenes grudge work performed by his staff, primarily Tim Rieser, which proved to be crucial.
"I worked steadily for two years to help obtain the release of Alan Gross. I visited him twice in Cuba. Tim Rieser of my staff met with him two other times and spoke with him by phone weekly over a period of many months," Leahy told reporters
after Gross was safely back in the U.S., reports the Free Press.
Rieser's efforts were also highlighted by members of Gross' inner circle.
“He was an extraordinary partner for us and I think the administration. He is the one who completed the sort of private sector, administration, congressional triangle. He was the liaison for not only Leahy but the other key Senate members involved in this and clearly the liaison with the administration from the Hill,” Gross attorney Scott Gilbert said of Rieser in an interview with Politico
Gross, who had been labeled by Cuban government officials as a "U.S. intelligence asset," was freed in exchange for three Cuban agents found guilty of spying on anti-Castro groups in Miami.
An unnamed American intelligence official — since identified by The New York Times as Rolando Sarraff Trujillo, jailed since 1996 — also was included in the swap.
Rieser, who works as a majority clerk on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was relatively new to issues related to Cuban-American relations, but he was not unfamiliar with greasing the legislative wheels to assist individuals lobbying Congress on humanitarian issues.
He worked with Marla Ruzicka, the founder of CIVIC (Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict), in her efforts to obtain financial for Iraqi civilians hurt in the Iraq war.
Ruzicka had lobbied Leahy's office to put language into an appropriations bill that would provide $3.75 million to help victims.
"I've helped Marla navigate the system. We've been working on this issue for years, but it's a delicate one. Asking for assistance for victims is like asking the Pentagon to admit they made mistakes. Fortunately, their offices in Iraq see the advantage of helping," Rieser told the San Francisco Chronicle
"They're seeing the anger and resentment that happens when bad things happen to the wrong people," he said.
How the committee staffer became involved with U.S.-Cuban affairs was happenstance.
“I was trying to think of what I could do the next year to keep myself busy, in addition to my usual appropriations job. I decided I would work on Cuba. It was sort out of the blue,” Rieser said of a journey that began two years ago.
“I told the White House staff that I thought the president should go to Cuba, and our job should be to create the conditions for him to do that … I think they might have thought I was crazy. But I could also see that the only way we had a chance of changing the policy was if we got Alan Gross home," Rieser told Politico.
The New Hampshire native formerly worked as a public defender in Vermont and was named to the list of National Journal's "Five Key Staffers on Foreign Aid"
The other, and much better known, key player in the behind-the-scenes negotiations was Pope Francis, who penned several letters earlier this year to both President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro, urging them to “resolve humanitarian questions of common interest,” reports The Los Angeles Times
"We haven't received communications like this from the Pope that I'm aware of other than this instance," a senior Obama administration official told the paper.
Austen Ivereigh, a British biographer of Francis, called the pope's mediation "the clincher" because, as a religious leader, he was able to earn from U.S. and Cuban officials the trust that was critical to Gross' release.
"It reflected the determination to work on the issue Francis had shown when he became pope in 2013," he said. "Francis is a genius at breaking through and building bridges across boundaries."
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