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American aid worker Alan Gross, right, speaks with his wife Judy shortly before leaving Havana on Dec. 17, 2014, in a photo tweeted by U.S. Senator Jeff Flake.

Reuters

American Alan Gross says he learned the lesson during five years in Cuban captivity that freedom is not free.

Gross, 65, spoke in Washington just after returning from Cuba, where he was imprisoned for five years. Cuba released him as part of an agreement to re-establish diplomatic relations with the United States.

He said he hopes that the United States and Cuba can now move beyond their mutually belligerent policies. Two wrongs never make a right, he said.

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Gross said that despite his experience, he has utmost respect and fondness for Cuba's people. They are in no way responsible for his ordeal, he said. He described most Cubans as incredibly kind, generous and talented.

Gross said that knowing he wasn't forgotten by people in the U.S. was crucial to his survival.

Negotiations for Gross's release lasted for about a year, with significant involvement by the Vatican, U.S. Senator Richard Durbin told Reuters on Wednesday.

Gross was arrested in Cuba in 2009 while working in the Communist-run country to set up Internet access for the island's small Jewish community, access that bypassed local restrictions and monitoring.

At the time, he was working as a subcontractor for the U.S. government's U.S. Agency for International Development, which promotes democracy on the island. Cuba considers USAID's programs illegal attempts by the U.S. to undermine its government, and Gross was tried and sentenced to 15 years in prison.

During the five years he was imprisoned, Gross watched Cuban baseball and even jammed with his jailers on a stringed instrument they gave him. He kept in touch with family through weekly phone calls.

But prison was tough on Gross. While in Cuban custody, Gross lost more than 100 pounds, developed problems with his hips and lost most of the vision in his right eye. In April, 2014, after an Associated Press story revealed that USAID secretly created a "Cuban Twitter" communications network to stir unrest on the island shortly after Gross was arrested, he went on a hunger strike for more than a week.

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His mother, who was in her 90s, persuaded him to start eating again. But she died in June 2014, and despite pleas from his family, Gross was not allowed to return to the United States for her funeral. That, his wife has said, broke him.

Alan Gross was born in Maryland in 1949 and has two daughters with his wife, Judy. The release of Gross, who is Jewish, coincided with the start of Hanukkah.

A Washington Redskins football fan, Gross developed an appreciation for Cuban baseball in prison. In 2012, when Gross had been in prison nearly 1,000 days, his older sister, Bonnie Rubenstein, said that he dreamed of eating ribs and drinking Scotch when he got out of prison. His brother-in-law, Rubenstein's husband, even purchased a 12-year-old single-malt Scotch he planned to save until his brother-in-law got home.

With a report from Reuters.

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