“Thank you, President Obama, for everything you have done today and leading up to today,” Gross, accompanied by his wife, Judy, said at a press conference.
The 65-year-old, whose health deteriorated during his five years behind bars, according to his family, arrived in the United States just hours after the White House confirmed Wednesday that the Cuban government had released him for “humanitarian reasons.”
Gross was arrested in Havana in December 2009 with satellite communications equipment he was planning to distribute among Cuba’s Jewish community.
He traveled to the island for Development Alternatives Inc., a Maryland company acting under a contract with the U.S. Agency for International Development to expand Internet access and the flow of information in Cuba.
Cuban authorities said Gross was illegally aiding dissidents and inciting subversion. He was eventually convicted and sentenced to 15 years.
Gross also thanked Republican Sen. Jeff Flake and Democratic representatives Chris Van Hollen and Barbara Lee for their visits and support and their efforts to secure his release.
He said he has the utmost respect and affection for the Cuban people, adding that “in no way are they responsible for the ordeal to which my family and I have been subjected.”
Expressing support for Obama’s announcement that he is taking a series of steps to normalize relations with Cuba, Gross said he hopes “we can now get beyond these mutually belligerent policies.”
Gross was freed as part of the process of rapprochement. The United States also freed three Cuban spies from the so-called “Group of Five” in exchange for a U.S. intelligence agent imprisoned inCuba for nearly 20 years.
Obama said he instructed Secretary of State John Kerry to start talks with Cuba immediately on restoring diplomatic relations, which were broken in January 1961.
“These 50 years have shown that isolation does not work,” Obama said. “It’s time for a new approach.”
Obama said he spoke with Cuban President Raul Castro by telephone on Tuesday and they agreed to start a dialogue on re-establishing diplomatic relations.
Cuba and the United States plan to reopen their embassies in each other’s capitals in the next few months, Obama said.
The major policy shift, however, will not likely bring a swift end to the United States’ longstanding economic embargo of the island, which will require congressional approval.