The three lawmakers had to wake up at 3 a.m. on Wednesday to oversee a prisoner exchange with Cuba that would pave way for the most transformative shift in U.S. relations with the island country in half a century.
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) and Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) described the emotional moment when the “three amigos,” as Leahy called them, received Alan Gross, an American contractor who was imprisoned in Cuba for five years. All three knew him and had visited him in prison.
National Security Adviser Susan Rice had called and asked them to be at Andrews Air Force Base, just outside Washington, D.C., by 4 a.m.
Accompanied by Alan’s wife Judy Gross and a representative from the National Security Council, they took off around 5 a.m. on an airplane dispatched by the White House. They landed in Havana at a field near the main airport there at 8 a.m.
They got off the plane and were escorted off the tarmac by a couple of Cuban officials into a room inside a building. Alan Gross was there waiting.
“He looks very frail but his spirits were very high at that moment,” Van Hollen said. “He was clearly elated that the moment had arrived. Because there’d been lots of discussions and efforts over the last five years to bring Alan home.”
Within a half hour of landing, they were back in the air, headed to Washington, D.C.
On the plane, Gross had a craving for popcorn, and luckily there was a bowl waiting for him. He also wanted a pastrami sandwich — not a Cuban sandwich, Van Hollen quipped.
“For me the emotional part was on the airplane,” Leahy said, “where he threw his arms me — I could feel how much weigh he had lost, but he’s going, “Patrick, this is wonderful, this is wonderful. I thought we were both going to start crying.”
They barely held back tears.
Judy Gross didn’t hold back. It had been five years of near-misses and disappointment.
“She was tearing up,” Van Hollen said, “and she asked for tissues before she went in. She needed them. For her it was a moment when all her efforts finally came together, to bring Alan home.”