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BRATTLEBORO >> For more than 20 years, U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., has been hammering on the wall separating Cuba and the United States.
On Dec. 18, that wall, one of the final remnants of the Cold War, finally crumbled, and with it the release of an American who had been held in a Cuban military prison for the past five years. But, some might say, without Ben and Jerry, he might still be banging on that wall today and Alan Gross might still be behind bars.
In the early 1990s, said Tim Rieser, the majority clerk of the Senate State and Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee and Leahy's foreign policy aide, the senator, on his first trip to Cuba, shared some local ice cream with Fidel Castro.
"Senator Leahy complimented Castro on Cuba's ice cream, but he insisted that the best ice cream comes from Vermont," Rieser told the Reformer on Thursday. Upon Leahy's return to the states, he arranged to have a case of Ben & Jerry's ice cream shipped to Castro. "A month or two later, the senator received word back that the ice cream had been well received. Apparently Castro liked the Ben & Jerry's."
Over the past 20 years, said Rieser, it was little things like that, and sharing pictures of grandchildren with Raoul Castro, Cuba's current leader, that helped bring about the conditions that led to Gross' release and the normalization of relations between the two countries.
"This has been a long-term effort to change what many have long concluded has been a failed policy that has not served its intended purpose, and instead has undermined U.S. interests," said David Carle, Leahy's spokesman.
Rieser, a 1970 graduate of The Putney School, has been on Capitol Hill since 1985, and over the past couple of years, since Leahy began in earnest to negotiate Gross' release, has been Leahy's "eyes, ears and legs" in Cuba. He said over the past 20 years, Leahy has met with presidents and their agencies and urged them to reconsider America's Cuba policy. He has also met a number of times with Fidel and Raoul Castro and their Foreign Minister.
"The senator has always been very interested in Cuba," said Rieser. "He believes the Cuban and American people have a lot more in common than their differences."
Leahy assisted with the return of Elian Gonzalez to his father in Cuba. In 1999, the 6-year-old boy, his mother and her boyfriend attempted to flee by boat from Cuba. His mother drowned in route and Gonzalez was turned over to this relatives in Florida. In a highly charged confrontation between federal officials and his family and Cubans living in Florida, Gonzalez, now 24, was eventually returned to his father in Cuba.
For several years, Leahy has been trying to obtain the release of Alan Gross, a subcontractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development, who had been held in Cuba since his arrest in late 2009, for allegedly smuggling satellite communications equipment to Cuba as part of USAID's pro-democracy programs. Goss was arrested in Cuba during his fifth trip there to work with Jewish communities on setting up Internet access. As part of the deal, Raoul Castro agreed to free a Cuban who had been a U.S. spy, and 53 political prisoners, and the United States agreed to free three Cubans who had been convicted of spying against the United States in the mid-1990s.
"The Cubans committed crimes and deserved to be punished, but as someone who was a prosecutor for eight years and the chairman or ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee for more than 18 years, I can see as others do that their cases are not an example of American justice to be proud of," stated Leahy in a press release.
Rieser said Leahy's long-term interactions with those in the Cuban government helped him build relationships that resulted in the announcement on Dec. 18 that the United States and Cuba would be opening embassies in each other's countries after more than 50 years of no official dialogue.
"He has been very direct with both Castro brothers and has not been reluctant to express his strong disapproval of their repressive policies and the plight of Cuba's political prisoners," said Rieser. "But he has done so in a way that demonstrated he was not treating them any differently than any other government that was acting in a way that was contrary to basic human rights."
Leahy not only had to appeal to Raoul Castro, but also to Pres. Barack Obama, he said.
"The senator made it clear that the release of Alan Gross was going to require real negotiations that could also pave the way for a new policy, but the goal was not just the release of Alan, it was to transform a policy that had clearly failed."
In addition, Leahy's staff made the case that the trials that sent the Cuban spies to prison for lengthy terms were flawed and the sentences were excessive.
"They were not an example of American justice anyone could be proud of," said Rieser.
Despite the many years of quiet negotiations, long-distance phone calls and unannounced meetings between him, the Castro brothers and presidential administrations, Leahy said he couldn't have done it without Rieser.
"Tim is the unsung hero of all this. There were times when we were afraid Alan might not be able to hang on. Tim spent time with him, talked with him on the phone a couple of times a week and carried my personal messages to him to his prison cell in Cuba to offer him hope and to help keep him going.
"On the airplane home, one of the first things Alan said to me was 'I can't wait to see Tim and to thank him,'" said Leahy.
Leahy told the Reformer that this is one of the most exciting events he has been a part of in his nearly 40 years representing Vermont in the Senate, and he has been involved in some major legislation and events over the years. Those include his efforts in support of a global ban on anti-personnel landmines and a law banning U.S. export of mines. He also helped establish the Leahy War Victims Fund to provide artificial limbs and rehabilitation to survivors of landmine explosions in Vietnam and has been a tireless advocate for addressing the effects of the use of Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. And then there is the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, which almost single-handedly created the organic food movement. Leahy was also involved in bringing together the two warring sides in Northern Ireland, ending decades of bloodshed.
"Those all kind of stand out," Leahy said. "But this one I have been working on for years."
Pope Francis also played a role in the release of Gross, said Leahy.
"It was not a hard sell with the Pope," he said.
According to The Guardina, contact between the two sides gained vital extra momentum from letters the Pope sent to Obama and Castro last summer. The Vatican said the letters called on the two countries "to resolve humanitarian questions of common interest, including the situation of certain prisoners, in order to initiate a new phase in relations." The Vatican also hosted delegations from Cuba and the U.S. at what were said to have been the talks at which the breakthrough was made.
"All of the pieces have come together over the years," said Leahy. "There are a whole lot of people who deserve credit for this, especially the president. I just see this as doing my job. If you are going to be in the U.S. Senate, then why not work at making a difference?"