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Arizona senator plays big part in American’s release from Cuba

PHOENIX — An Arizona senator was one of the largest players in the release of an American held prisoner in Cuba for five years.

Alan Gross was arrested in 2009 while setting up Internet access for the island country’s small Jewish community, access that bypassed local restrictions and monitoring.

On Wednesday, he was freed, thanks largely in part to Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) who met with diplomats last month to secure his release. Flake escorted Gross back to the U.S.

“This is a wonderful day for Alan Gross, for his wife Judy and their family,” Flake said in a statement. “The manner in which they have endured this nightmare is worthy of praise and admiration. It was an honor to be with Alan as he touched down on U.S. soil after more than five years in a Cuban prison.

“When I visited Alan last month, he expressed the hope that his ordeal might somehow lead to positive changes between the United States and Cuba. With today’s significant and far-reaching announcements, I think it already has.”

Flake’s right. Associated Press sources said conversations about Gross’ release were part of the U.S. and Cuba normalizing relations.

President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro were to separately address their nations around noon Wednesday. The two leaders spoke by phone for more than 45 minutes Tuesday, the first substantive presidential-level discussion between the U.S. and Cuba since 1961.

Wednesday’s announcements follow more than a year of secret talks between U.S. and Cuban officials in Canada and the Vatican. U.S. officials said Pope Francis was personally engaged in the process and sent separate letters to Obama and Castro this summer urging them to restart relations.

As part of the resuming diplomatic relations with Cuba, the U.S. will soon reopen an embassy in the capital of Havana and carry out high-level exchanges and visits between the governments. The U.S. is also easing travel bans to Cuba, including for family visits, official U.S. government business, and educational activities, through tourist travel remains banned.

The U.S. is also increasing the amount of money Americans can send to Cubans from $500 to $2,000 per quarter, or every three months. Early in his presidency, Obama allowed unlimited family visits by Cuban-Americans and removed a $1,200 annual cap on remittances. Secretary of State John Kerry is also launching a review of Cuba’s designation as a state sponsor of terror.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.