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Jeff F.
Republican AZ

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  • One-Year Anniversary of the Release of Alan Gross

    by Senator Jeff Flake

    Posted on 2015-12-17

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    FLAKE. Madam President, I want to first pay tribute to Senator Leahy for the long path to getting here with Cuba, for all of the work that he has done, and to his capable staff, including Tim Rieser and people on my staff, including Chandler Morse and others, who have worked on this issue for so long. I have appreciated working with Senator Leahy on this issue.

    It was 1 year ago today, as Senator Leahy mentioned, that we had received a call just a few days prior, asking if we would participate in a quick mission down to Cuba, but we had to keep quiet about it for a few days, which was a bit difficult. One year ago today, we got on the President's plane, as Senator Leahy mentioned, and went down and picked up Alan Gross. It was wonderful to have Alan's wife Judy on the plane with us. What a joyous occasion that was to see that reunion there in Cuba and then to climb on the plane.

    As we climbed away from Cuba, I will never forget that about 20 minutes into the flight, the pilot came on and said that we had now entered U.S. airspace. Alan Gross stood up, threw his arms in the air, and then breathed deeply. Then he said, ``Now I finally know I am free.'' Then we watched on the news on the plane as the announcement came that we would be changing our policy, that we would be seeking full diplomatic relations, and that many of the policies of the past would go away.

    It has been a wonderful year to see some of that happen. One of my best moments--favorite moments--in Congress was going down with Senator Leahy again and watching the American flag being raised over the U.S. Embassy in Havana after 54 long years, to have those marines there, the same three marines who had lowered the flag in 1961 and who returned to Cuba to help raise the flag back up. What a wonderful symbol. What a wonderful thing about a new policy and a new way forward with Cuba.

    It is significant to note, as Senator Leahy mentioned, that after spending 5 years in prison in Cuba, Alan Gross came out of prison without bitterness. From that time forward, he has promoted meeting with colleagues of ours [[Page S8750]] and telling anybody who will listen that this way forward is the right way forward on Cuba; that we should change our policies; that we ought to have closer cooperation and diplomatic relations; and that the problems that Cuba has are the problems of the Cuban Government, not the Cuban people.

    I want to pay tribute to Alan Gross for that. He continues to work till this day for better relations between Cuba and the United States. That is a significant thing. When Senator Tom Udall and I visited Alan Gross in prison in November of last year, just 1 month prior to his release, he was in a bad way. He had lost a lot of weight. He had lost some of his teeth. It was a tough time to be in prison. Being there for 5 years, he missed many events at home with his family.

    I cannot imagine coming out of that experience and still feeling the compassion that he has for the Cuban people. Just last night it was announced that the U.S. and Cuba have agreed to enter into a bilateral agreement on flights to allow airlines from America, U.S. carriers to fly to Cuba. Instead of just charter flights, we will now have directly scheduled flights. That will allow Americans to travel to Cuba easier and more inexpensively.

    I would encourage all Americans who can find themselves in 1 of the 12 categories for travel to do so. There are a group of Cubans who came to the United States a while ago. They were asked: What can America do for you? These were Cuban entrepreneurs who are looking to change the system in Cuba.

    They said: Visit Cuba. Come see us. Come to our private restaurants. Stay in our homes. Spend money in Cuba that we have access to. I should note that those who oppose a new policy--the new policy that we have with Cuba--often say that if you travel to Cuba, every dime that you spend goes right to the Cuban Government. That is not the case.

    In Cuba right now, you can stay at a bed and breakfast. In fact, Airbnb has 2,500 listings in Cuba. You can stay at an Airbnb. The bulk of that money, most of that goes to those Cubans who are hosting you, not the Cuban Government. You can eat at a private restaurant where those who prepare the meal, serve the meal, and cook the meals will see the bulk of that money to them.

    In fact, about 20 percent of the Cuban workforce is now outside of the Cuban Government. So, when Americans travel to Cuba, Cubans benefit. So I would encourage my colleagues and others to take the opportunity to go down to Cuba and travel. The policy that we had for 54 years in Cuba failed to produce the results that we want to see. We want to see a democratic Cuba that respects human rights.

    The Cuban Government still has a long way to go, but I truly believe that the best way forward, the best way to make progress on those areas that we still need to make progress on, is with full diplomatic relations. Hopefully, we soon will have an Ambassador in Cuba who is the Ambassador. Our diplomatic team, led by Jeff DeLaurentis, does a great job in Cuba, but we ought to have a U.S. Ambassador there.

    Americans traveling to Cuba doing legal business in Cuba ought to have the same protections they have anywhere else in the world. We need good representation, full representation, in countries that are not friendly to us more than we need it in countries that are friendly to us. So I would encourage the Obama administration to move forward on those and other areas as well.

    There are still some measures the Obama administration can take that will improve the lives of Cubans and make it more likely that we can make progress in these other areas. Having said that, let me just say-- you often don't hear it from this side of the aisle--but I want to praise and applaud this President, President Obama, for taking the measures that he has taken on Cuba. It took guts to do so.

    There is still opposition to the positions that he has taken, but he has taken a position that helps the Cuban people, and it helps Americans. It is good for our national interests. It is good for our security interests.

    With that, I want to thank again the Senator from Vermont for the work that he has done on this issue. It has been a pleasure working with him. This past year has been a great year in terms of U.S.-Cuba relations. Here is to an even better year ahead.

    I yield the floor.

    The PRESIDING OFFICER. The majority leader.


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