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tv   Wolf  CNN  December 17, 2014 10:00am-11:01am PST

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eks. stelara® helps keep my skin clearer. ask your doctor about stelara®. hello. i'm wolf blitzer. it's 1:00 p.m. here in washington. it's also 1:00 p.m. in havana. 6:00 p.m. in london. 9:00 p.m. in moscow. wherever you're watching from around the world, thanks very much for joining us. breaking news, a dramatic shift in u.s. relations with cuba and the release of a u.s. citizen held by the cuban government for five years. we're going to hear from that freed american, alan gross. he's going to be speaking live during this hour. we'll have live coverage of his remarks. he's now back here in the united states. gross' release is part of a landmark deal. it paved the way for the most sweeping overhaul of u.s./cuban policy, u.s./cuban relations since the 1961 revolution and the u.s. embargo against cuba. in a speech just a little while
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ago, president obama said the policy of isolating cuba has not worked and it's now time to chart a whole new course. >> we are taking steps to increase travel, commerce and the flow of information to and from cuba. this is fundamentally about freedom and openness and also expresses my belief in the power of people-to-people engagement. with the changes i'm announcing today, it will be easier for americans to travel to cuba. and americans will be able to use american credit and debit cards on the island. nobody represents america's values better than the american people. and i believe this contact will ultimately do more to empower the cuban people. >> the cuban president, raul castro, also spoke exactly at the same time as president obama and he spoke about the effort to improve relations with the united states. both presidents thanked pope francis.
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>> translator: i want to thank and recognize the support of the vatican and for pope francis for the improvement of the relationship between cuba and the united states. >> let get some more background now on alan gross, who was jailed in cuba back in 2009 while working as a subcontractor with the u.s. agency for international development. he was convicted of crimes against the cuban state. he was sentenced to 15 years in prison. alan gross is in declining health. he's lost more than 100 pounds during his time in prison in cuba. let's get more details now on the release of alan gross and the dramatic overhaul of u.s./cuban relations. let's bring in jim acosta and cnn's patrick oppmann, the only u.s. network correspondent reporting from havana. jim, let me start with you. president obama actually spoke yesterday with the cuban
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president, raul castro, for about 45 minutes, president obama was in the oval office. that's the first time an american president has had such a substantive conversation with a cuban leader in, what, more than 50 years? >> reporter: that's right, wolf. and i think it is pa sign that the cold war with cuba is over. that's what president obama announced just a few moments ago here at the white house. the president culminating a deal that's been in the works since june of 2013. senior administration officials held a conference call with reporters earlier today laying out sort of how this all went down. the deputy national security adviser, ben rhodes, along with other administration officials have been working on this for months. apparently throughout this entire process, pope francis was involved. pope francis sending letters to both president obama and cuban leader raul castro last fall urging them to make this happen. wolf, i was traveling with the president back in april earlier
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this year when the president went to the vatican, met with pope francis. i asked president obama about his meeting with pope francis. he did not divulge the two leaders talked about cuba. but, in fact, according to senior administration officials, during that meeting, the pope and president obama did talk about this initiative with respect to normalizing relations with cuba. so this has been going on for months and months and ended today with what is really objectively speaking a blockbuster diplomatic agreement for this administration. i think the timing of this is very interesting, wolf, in that it happened after the midterms as the senate foreign relations committee chairman, bob menendez, a cuban american and fierce critic of the castro government, a fierce supporter of the embargo, as he is handing over the gavel to bob corker, the senator from tennessee. perhaps this administration saw that things were starting to change from a political standpoint up on capitol hill that really the cuban american leaders up in congress couldn't really do anything to stop this.
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so the white house had a green light to move forward. one other thing i want to point out in listening to this background call with senior administration officials, this is not lifting the embargo. this is not ending the travel ban. americans will not be able to go to orbitz or travelocity to buy tickets to cuba. you have to go to a third party. you can't go to the store and buy cuban cigars. people can travel to cuba and bring back cuban cigars, but they can't go to a cigar shop in the united states and buy subban cigars in the united states. that's still under the embargo. but no question about it, a major step forward in the relations between the u.s. and cuba. >> thanks very much, jim acosta. let's go to havana right now. our correspondent there is patrick oppmann, the only u.s. television network correspondent on the scene in cuba for us.
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you've been there for a while, patrick. give us your perspective. this is a huge historic moment in the u.s./cuban relationship. >> reporter: i've been coming to cuba for nearly 20 years. and there's never been a day like this i've experienced here. cubans found out in the last hour when raul castro made the announcement over cuban state tv that there was a prisoner exchange, that there was this major step towards normalization. and while we were doing live shots, our cameraman was out going to people's homes watching them as we're seeing this announcement. took them completely by surprise. he told me people had tears in their eyes, that literally broke down. most people in cuba were born after the cuban revolution took power. they've never known a day in their lives without the cuban embargo. many gave up hope that something like this could ever happen. as that announcement took place, you heard raul castro thank pope francis for his active role in
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making this agreement happen. we heard church bells all throughout havana ringing, marking an historic day on the island. >> patrick oppmann, stand by. critics are already hammering president obama and his administration over the move toward normalizing relations with cuba. one of those critics is republican senator marco rubio of florida. he's calling it outrageous, counterproductive. senator rubio joins us live from capitol hill. senator rubio, thanks for joining us. what do you say to the president who says the united states can have normal diplomatic commercial ties with a communist regime in china, with a communist regime in vietnam, with other repressive regimes around the world. why not with a neighbor only 90 miles from the united states? >> two points, that makes my point. we have normal relations with vietnam and china and it's not brought freedom or democracy in either of those two places. the regime in china is as
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repressive as it's ever been. and if it hasn't worked on a bigger country like china, imagine what the cuban regime will do with these unilateral concessions. none of these are going to reach the cuban people. the cuban people think something good is coming. but the cuban government is going to manipulate these changes to tighten their grip on power. i know the true nature of this regime. and i think this president is woefully ignorant of the truth or just naive. >> the argument is if a lot of americans visit cuba and speak with the cuban people on a daily basis, inevitably it's going to ease a lot of the oppressive nature of that regime. >> well, there's no precedent for that in human history. tourists are interested in going to the beach, not in furthering
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democracy. tourists travel all over the world and it doesn't change the nature of the governments of those countries. it will provide a lot of revenue for the cuban government so they can make themselves a permanent fixture forever. what's outrageous is all these concessions the president made, banking, people can use atm cards there, the opening up of telecommunications companies going in, diplomatic relations being re-established. in exchange for all that, the cuban government didn't agree to freedom of the press, freedom of the organizing of political parties or elections or any sort of democratic opening. that i have agreed to free 53 political prisoners who could be back in jail next week if they take up the cause of freedom and democracy. >> what about the release of this u.s. spy, a cuban national who helped the united states and had been in prison for 20 years in cuba? he is now freed. we're told he's back here in the united states. of course, alan gross who spent five years in a cuban prison for simply trying to improve
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internet access for the tiny jewish community in havana. >> first of all, i'm glad that al lance gross is back home. i haven't criticized that aspect of it. i'm glad this individual who's cooperated with our government is back home. as the president himself said, those issues were completely unrelated, he's said this, to all the other things happening. but the president today in his statement said the reason why the cuban people don't have access to advanced telecommunications is because of the cuban embargo. that's patently false. the reason is because it's illegal in cuba. that's why alan gross was supposedly taken hostage, because he was providing telecommunication equipment to a jewish community. again, this is just one untrue statement after another. >> the president also makes the case and many supporters of an improved relationship with cuba make the same point. for 50 years the u.s. had the embargo, the sanctions, tried to isolate cuba and that regime, that castro regime, first with
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fid fidel, now with his brother, raul. they're still in power, still repressive. the policies of successful democratic administrations over the years have not worked and it's time for a change. your response? >> my response is that we should lift sanctions on russia because it hasn't gotten them out of crimea. lift the sanctions imposed on venezuela, they haven't agreed to stop abusing human rights. we as a nation and our moral standing in the world is based on the principle of human dignity, human rights, democracy and freedom. we back it up with sanctions because we're a large, powerful and important country. we impose sanctions against those who violate these principles. they are in place in cuba. why would we lift them? it's ironic a week ago, we passed sanctions against government officials in venezuela for human rights violations. a week later, we are lifting sanctions on the very government
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that's taught the venezuelans how to abuse their own people. >> the u.s. imposed sanctions against cuba in 1961 and it's gone on ever since. one final question, senator, before i let you go. i know your speaking out vociferously. you hate this decision by president obama, what he did today. but practically speaking if the united states under his administration, still has two years in office, wants to establish an embassy in havana, let the cubans have an embassy here in washington, what practically speaking can you do to prevent that? >> well, it's my understanding -- and i hope the president understands this -- that any embassy decides to open anywhere in the world has to be funded. he's going to have a heck of a fight on his hands to get it funded, as long as i'm in the senate. and to have a u.s. ambassador. we're going to have very interesting conversations with the white house about how to get an ambassador nominated as long as i'm here. >> what you're saying is you will vote against the confirmation of any nominee, any
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u.s. ambassador that the president designates to go to havana, is that what you're saying? >> not only would i vote against it but i reserve the right to do everything within the rules of the senate to prevent that sort of individual from ever even coming up for a vote. >> all right. senator rubio, thanks very much for joining us. >> thank you. >> marco rubio, the senator from florida. he's a member of the senate foreign relations committee. alan gross, by the way, the american contractor who spent five years in a cuban jail, is expected to speak in about 15, 20 minutes or so. make a statement here in washington. we'll have live coverage of that. his wife, judy, is with him at the same time. also, two people who worked very, very hard to get alan gross' release, their thoughts and perspective, our live coverage continues right after this. [ male announcer ] are you so stuffed up, you feel like you're underwater? try zyrtec-d® to powerfully clear your blocked nose and relieve your other allergy symptoms... so you can breathe easier all day. zyrtec-d®.
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once again, only moments away, getting ready to hear from alan gross, the american contractor who is now back in the united states. he's actually back here in washington, d.c. after five years of captivity, spent five years in a cuban prison. he was flown out with two u.s. senators, one member of the u.s. house of representatives on board that military plane that
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flew from havana to joint base andrews outside washington, d.c. we'll be speaking with those three lawmakers, senator leahy, senator flake, representative chris van hollen, get their take what it was like as they flew back to the united states. let's talk about this dramatic new shift in u.s./cuban relations right now, what it means. joining us, ana navarro joining us from miami and here in washington, evan perez, our global affairs correspondent, elise labott, and our chief national security correspondent, jim sciutto. pretty strong, jim sciutto, statement from marco rubio. you heard how angry he is about this decision that president obama made to improve relations with fidel castro -- heard a statement from raul castro, the president of cuba, also welcoming this u.s./cuban relationship. he threatened as a member of the senate foreign relations committee he will vote against
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confirming anyone to become a united states ambassador to havana and will oppose any funding for a u.s. embassy in havana. >> it's not confined to the republican party. democratic senators are opposed to this as well. robert menendez, et cetera. americans may not realize this, through already a great number of american diplomats in cuba right now. there's an american intercept there right now, a u.s. embassy on the coast surrounded with bullhorns and flags, you can see it very clearly when you visit. you have a presence there that you could begin this reengagement even if you don't have approval from a republican-led congress. that's something to keep in mind. but this is a dramatic risk by the obama administration. think of it, you have a phone call between the american president and the leader of an adversary that you haven't had contact with for decades. you have secret negotiations going on in a third country and lo and behold, you have a
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reengagement with a country you'd been at odds with for years. it's very much like the iran scenario and the iran scenario has shown us both the benefits of that, ongoing nuclear negotiations but also the risks. the nuclear negotiations haven't come to a conclusion, bad things happening inside iran. iran, another country that doesn't treat itself people very well. it's legacy-building for the obama administration but it's risky because we don't have the final chapter certainly on iran. it remains to be seen where it goes with cuba. one other thing, in the iran talks, it was oman that was the third party where you had the secret associatinegotiations le to the phone call. in this case, it was canada. >> canada has had full, open contact for years with cuba. it's clear to me, elyiseelise, covered this president for six years, he's wanted to do this from day one.
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but it's taken a long time. i think that five-year captivity of alan gross was a major impediment. but he wanted to go down in history as the american president who normalized relations with cuba just as nixon was the president who normalized relations with china. >> he pledged to engage iran and cuba. you saw with iran that election in 2009 and the crackdown of the iranian opposition, that stopped him there. clearly alan gross stopped him on cuba. the president had taken some actions toward cuba, modifying some of the travel restrictions in 2011. and then alan gross happened. so the president -- obviously this has been a hold-up. but the president has been seeing and members of the administration, some small reforms on the island, some economic liberalization. some small political reforms that the administration is saying, listen, the embargo is not working, if we want to encourage reforms in cuba, we need to open up, we need to
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engage not just with the cuban people, with the cuban government. that's what the president was talking about. listen, the president acknowledged here that the administration is alone on this issue, not only was candidate and the europeans really pushing, the vatican pushing for the u.s. to move forwards normalizing relations, but everybody in the western hemisphere except the united states was looking for cuba to be integrated into the region. when we talk about president obama going to this summit of the americas in panama, basically the message to president obama was, no cuba, no summit. so clearly the president thought this was the moment to continue to try and push these further reforms. >> i want everybody to stand by. ana, stand by. evan, stand by. i want to go up to capitol hill. joining us, the three members of the congressional delegation that went to havana this morning and accompanied alan gross back to the united states. joining us now, chris van hollen, the democratic congressman from maryland, alan gross lives in his district.
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he's in rockville, maryland. senator patrick leahy from vermont and republican senator jeff flake. we have a democratic senator, a republican senator, we have a democratic congressman. senator leahy, i'll start with you, you're the veteran there. you must be pretty thrilled about this decision by the president to normalize relations with cuba. >> i'm very thrilled with it. i've talked with the president many, many times about this over the past few years. like my two colleagues here have gone to cuba numerous times, met with alan gross while he was down there. but what i kept telling the president, obviously we wanted to do everything we could to get mr. gross out. we also have to think, what is in the long-term best interest of the united states? i think normalization with cuba is in our best interest. we look foolish to the rest of the world, the most powerful nation on earth acting as though somehow we're afraid to allow
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u.s. citizens to go to cuba. they're not going to change overnight. but they certainly aren't going to change if we continue our embargo. >> senator flake, you're a republican. we heard marco rubio, he hates this decision by the president. where do you stand in terms of trying to normalize u.s./cuban relations? >> well, i've been in congress and the house and the senate for 14 years now. all 14 of those years, i pushed to lift the travel ban and to normalize relations. i think our policy has done more to keep the castros in power than anything. so i think it's high time for a change. 50 years is long enough that we ought to do this and do whatever we can so that ordinary cubans can have more control of their destiny. this does that by allowing americans to travel and more commerce, more contact. this is a good thing. >> congressman van hollen, tell us what it was like.
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you flew to havana early in the morning, about 4:00 a.m. and then you get alan gross, pick him up, his wife, judy, is on the plane coming back to joint base andrews. first of all, what was your impression after five years in a cuban jail? how is he doing, this american contractor? >> well, very emotional moment. his wife, judy, has dedicated the last five years tirelessly to try to bring alan home. you can imagine that moment at the airport in havana when we first saw alan. and he knew the moment had come to bring him home. he was elated, big smile on his face and of course on the airplane back as we finally crossed into u.s. airspace, you saw him give a big hoorah, put his arms up. he was clearly glad to be home. i should say after having spent five years in cuban prison, he knows how important it is to be free. and he believes that the president's policy will over
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time lead to more freedom for the cuban people for the reasons my colleagues have said. the current 54-year-old policy has been a miserable failure by its own standard that we set to try to open a free cuba. this policy will do more than that failed policy. and that's alan gross' view after having spent five years in the cuban prison. >> hold on a second. we're showing our viewers -- this is alan gross and his wife, judy, they've arrived at this office building here in washington, d.c. they're going to be going up to their lawyer's office, making a statement. we'll have live coverage of that coming up. but there you see alan gross getting into the elevator together with the entourage, his wife, judy, who's worked for five years to try to get him out of that jail. he's lost a lot of weight. senator leahy, you visited him. i interviewed him a few years ago in that prison. he told me, i was shocked, he'd
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lost 100 pounds in that cuban jail and he was described as very frail. >> i think he's going to keep on doing exercises and push-ups -- i did notice a difference the last time i visited him. i thought, we've got to get this man out of here. he's going to his lawyer, scott gilbert, who's superb, worked tirelessly on this. but the other thing i remember, we were flying there and watching some of the news on the airplane. and i said, alan, you're free. and he got up and he threw his arms around me, hugged me. he said, patrick, i finally know i'm free. and we were both shaking, very, very emotional, as it should be. now let's take the next steps forward to make all the time he spent there, all the effort on his behalf, let's make it worthwhile for the future of our country and of cuba's.
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>> senator flake, what was your impression? we spoke with his wife, judy, a few weeks ago and she was afraid she would never see her husband again. she thought he was actually dying in that cuban jail, losing sight in one eye, having all sorts of other problems. but he looked pretty good, at least in the video that we're showing our viewers right now here in the united states and around the world. you spent three hours on that plane with him. give us your impressions, senator flake. >> well, he was ready to come home. i met with him a month ago myself and senator tom udall in havana in the cuban prison. at that point, he was at wits end. and he said many times, i've spent my last birthday here. either i go home or i go home another way. so he was really at wits end. this was a welcome thing for him. i'm sure my colleagues view, it was just very emotional. great to have him home. >> what do you say to your
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republican colleague, senator marco rubio, a member of the senate foreign relations committee, that anyone that the president nominates to be the american ambassador to havana, to koocuba, he will vote against and any funding to establish a formal u.s. embassy in havana, he will vote against any funding for a u.s. embassy in havana, what do you say to senator rubio? >> he has strongly held views on this. i respect those views but i strongly disagree. we have a u.s. interest section in cuba. and we ought to have an embassy. we ought to have normalized relations. that would do better to protect americans who are there. it would be better for -- just to have a u.s. presence there, an official u.s. presence. so i would simply disagree and would hope that my colleagues would share my view. >> one follow-up for senator flake.
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there are going to be 54 republicans in the next united states senate. how do they divide up, your republican colleagues, the 54? are more of them with senator rubio or more of them with you? >> i don't know. we'll see in the coming weeks. we haven't really had a test vote, if you will, on cuba or the travel policy for a number of years. i think more than half of the senate is in its first six years. so it's really unknown at this point. but i would hope that my colleagues would realize it's been 50 years, it's time to move on and have a policy that actually has a better chance of improving the lives of ordinary cubans. >> what about among the democrats, senator leahy? you've got bob menendez who's the outgoing chairman of the senate foreign relations committee himself, like senator rubio, a cuban american. he doesn't like this either? >> well, because of politics back home or how they feel, some will be opposed to this.
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but stop and think of what's in the best interest of the united states. wealthiest, most powerful nation on earth. are we going to say, we don't like you so we're not going to put an embassy in there, we're not going to be in a position to help change things and we're not going to be in a position where we can help americans who are spending time in your country? i think that would be really, really foolish. if you're a u.s. citizen, you're in another country and suddenly you need help, you expect to be able to go to the u.s. embassy. and we say, no, we have a few people in congress who don't like this country. so there's nobody here you can go to. it just doesn't work that way. you don't get to pick and choose. we're in countries where we don't agree -- we don't agree with the chinese form of government. we don't agree with russia's form of government. but i think everybody from the business community to the academic community think we're out of our mind if we pulled our
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embassies out of those countries. >> congressman van hollen, you agree with senator haley, i assume? >> i do. this was a very emotional moment, obviously, for alan gross and his family and our community in maryland. i've been proud to represent the family. i knew alan before he was taken prisoner in cuba. so this is a great day for alan gross and the gross family. it's also a very important day in american cuban relations trying to turn the page on 54 years of clearly failed policies to try to actually open up cuba so the cuban people have more freedom and more opportunity. >> chris van hollen, the democratic congressman from maryland, jeff flake, the republican senator from arizona, patrick leahy, the democratic senator from vermont who were on that plane from havana to joint base andrews outside washington, d.c. today together with alan gross and his wife, judy, bringing him home after five
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years being held in a cuban jail. thanks to all of you for joining us. >> thank you. >> you're looking at live pictures from a law office here in washington, d.c. you see the podium there. the american flags, alan gross is about to make a statement. i think his wife, judy, will make a statement as well. they're going to be speaking out. they're back here in the united states. we'll listen in to hear what they say once they walk in there. this is their attorney's office. they've worked hard over these five years to get alan gross freed. he is a free man right now. let me bring in ana navarro who's joining us from miami. ana, the polls show that the older generation of cuban americans, especially in little havana in miami are fiercely opposed to this normalization of relations with the castro regime, the castro government in cuba. but younger cuban americans, those born here, maybe in their 30s and 40s, they're much more open to a normalization of
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relations. you live there in miami. what do you think? is that true that there's a generational split between older and younger cuban americans? >> i think there is a generational split, wolf. i think it's a natural thing because the older cuban americans felt the suffering in their own skin. that makes a difference. even though there is a generational split, i don't think it's anywhere near the numbers that some people would like to portray. evidence of that is that we don't have one single elected official statewide in florida that is pro lifting sanctions. you have senator bill nelson, the only democrat, joining all the other republicans in being against lifting sanctions on cuba unilaterally. and the entire congressional delegation from south florida is now also against sanctions. the one member that was for them was joe garcia and was defeated in november.
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i think what you're seeing now is frankly very cynical from president obama. part of the reason -- i think you were right when you said he's wanted to do this from day one. you're seeing him do it now because his elections are over and the 2014 elections in florida that were at play are also over and the senate went into adjournment yesterday and i think this is exactly the right time for him to do it where there's the least amount of legal repercussions. but good luck trying to get the funding for this stuff through the anti-sanction -- the pro-sanction forces in congress. >> but you know that it's not just all the republicans. you just heard senator jeff flake of arizona, he supports the president's decision to normalize relations and there are a whole bunch of other republican senators who agree. i suppose most of the democrats, the two independents and the 44 other democrats in the new senate, they're going to be with the president on this.
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so i'm not exactly sure that marco rubio and those who are fiercely opposed to this improved relationship with cuba are necessarily, correct me if i'm wrong, going to have the votes? >> the ones who oppose are in very strong positions. marco rubio's going to be the next chair of western hemisphere. any ambassador that needs to be confirmed to cuba would have to go through his subcommittee. jeff flake is going to be the number two. so there's a lot at stake about marco rubio being there. bob menendez is the ranking member on the entire committee of foreign relations. you have mario diaz-balart on the appropriations committee. you have speaker boehner who came out with a statement not too long ago saying this isn't the right time to lift sanctions, much less normalize
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relations with cuba. if you look at and talk to republican leadership in the senate and the house, i know where john cornyn is on this and where mitch mcconnell is on this and where john boehner is on this. this is not going to be an easy lift for president obama. >> he may have some support, though. the new incoming chairman, bob corker of tennessee, we'll be anxious to hear where he stands. but the word on the street is he's much more opened to an improved relationship between the united states and cuba than some of his other republican colleagues. ana, stand by. we'll get back to you. we're waiting to hear directly from alan gross. he's going to be speaking at this news conference. he's going to be making a statement. we think his wife, judy, will make a statement as well. he's just back in washington having spent five years in a cuban jail. these are live pictures from that law office here in washington, d.c. alan gross, we'll hear from him directly. in the meantime, let's get more analysis on what's going on.
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joining us, senator tom udall of new mexico with us, donna brazile is here, our democratic strategist who's with us as well. senator udall, thanks for coming in. you've hard to get alan gross out there. tell us what it was like. >> i was there a little more than a month ago with senator flake. we spent two hours with alan gross. it was an engaging conversation. my sense is his condition was getting better. it seemed like something was up. we were at the point where it really seemed that the cuban government was easing things in order to get to the point to do some behind-the-scenes negotiations. we felt very encouraged by what we saw.
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we didn't like the condition he was in. he'd lost a couple of teeth. his health wasn't great. but he was plugged into the rest of the world. >> you met with raul castro -- >> we didn't. rerequested that. we met with the foreign minister and other officials. at every meeting, we said, this is the time to do this. and the next period after the election until we get in a big presidential campaign -- this is the window of opportunity. >> they want these three remaining cuban five prisoners being held in the united states, they wanted that swap, if you will. and the u.s. for five years for all practical purposes, president obama refused to make that exchange. >> that's right.
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>> you're okay with the swap? >> i think any of these things are messy but i think we should move on to normalization. clearly alan gross is back, our intelligence source has been released, 65 or so political prisoners within cuba have been released. there's something very good on our side. you talk to those families, they will tell you that that means something. >> so you're okay with releasing the cuban prisoners? >> i think we should move on from that and normalize relations and drop the embargo and move in a significant way. >> donna, you went to havana and met with alan gross. i think you went with congresswoman debbie wasserman schultz at one point, didn't you? >> i went with congressman bass and congressman harman -- >> wasn't debbie wasserman schultz part of your delegation? >> she wasn't. but so many americans have gone down to cuba to lobby for alan gross' release. we've gone down in the hopes
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that we can normalize relations with cuba. it was a very important visit. i'm glad alan is released. i'm actually joyful. this is a very blessed day. alan suffered in prison. he lost a lot of weight. but he never lost his resiliency and his determination to come home. so i'm very happy for him and judy today. >> when you heard the news, donna, you get emotional from time to time, you heard the word that alan gross is about to fly back to the united states with these u.s. lawmakers, describe your immediate reaction. >> i jumped up and screamed. tldzn't been a night or weak that i have not personally lobbied people at the white house. we've met with members of congress. judy has called us and called us. when i went, i was with a friend, david dreyer.
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alan kept telling us, we can do it. keep pressing. but i'm very joyful. this is the second day of hanukkah. another night to celebrate. >> festival of lights that the jewish people celebrate all over the world. >> gloria, the timing of this is significant. it comes, what, a month or so after the midterm elections. the president, his final two years, he doesn't have to worry about getting reelected. the politics of all this. the timing significant because i think it's fair to say this deal probably could have been achieved a long time ago. but maybe the politics stood in the way before the midterm elections. >> yes, of course. i think also as the president himself said that he had to negotiate the return of mr. gross before he could do anything else. so that was a final impediment. but taking a step back for a moment, you had an election in november. this is a president who lost
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control of the senate but what has he done? immigration reform through executive action, climate change and now cuba. and what this does, this is a president who's clearly looking towards a legacy he wants to leave one way or another. if you're a republican right now, we've heard republicans coming out there today including the speaker of the house who called the president's negotiations full of mindless concessions. you've of course spoken with marco rubio and the rest of you -- if you talk to republicans, this plays into two things. one is the notion of the imperial presidency trying to do things without congress which, by the way, he is. and secondly to the president, the question of whether the president shows weakness in face of the bad guys. these are the bad guys, this is the president who when he first ran for the presidency said, i want to talk to the iranians, i want to try and normalize relations with cuba. he's been out there for this entire time.
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but it will play into a narrative in the 2016 election. and it will also affect hillary clinton. you set up this disparity between hillary clinton, secretary of state to barack obama, versus potentially jeb bush or marco rubio. we see that today. >> everybody stand by. we're going to continue our special coverage. we're waiting to hear from alan gross. there's a live picture coming from his law offices. his lawyer's office right here in washington, d.c. we'll hear from him right after this.
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we're standing by, looks like they're getting closer to the start of this statement, the statement that alan gross who was in a cuban jail for more than five years, now back in the united states, an american contractor who had gone to havana more than five years ago, wanted to provide some internet access for the tiny jewish community in havana. was picked up by cuban authorities, arrested, convicted, spent five-years plus in a cuban jail. has now been released. the u.s. has released three cuban prisoners, part of the cuban five, they're back in cuba. the u.s. also got a cuban citizen who had within a u.s. intelligence source, a spy for the united states, he was arrested 20 years ago.
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spent the last 20 years in a cuban jail. he is now a free man here in the united states. the director of national intelligence here in the u.s. issuing a strong statement welcoming this u.s. spy's return to the united states. let's go to havana as we await alan gross. patrick oppmann is our man on the scene. alina machado is in little havana, a section of miami. patrick, first to you, a lot of excitement, i think, what you're seeing is average cubans on the streets of havana from what you can see are pretty thrilled about this move towards normalizing u.s./cuban relations. >> reporter: absolutely. this is something that people have waited sometimes their whole lives for. they want to be closer to the united states. many have relatives, particularly in south florida, who they're not able to see, not able to be in communication with regularly. so there's a hope this will change that. they only learned about this about two hours ago, noon local time, when raul castro came on
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air here, obviously very unexpected announcement and commended the u.s. president for these negotiations. very conciliatory language, complimentary language we've never heard from a cuban leader towards a sitting u.s. leader, just remarkable to hear raul castro speaking well of president obama. then he talked about a normalizing of relations. and we were with regular cubans when that happened, people in their home, happened to hear -- they had the tv on. and they were completely surprised. they had no advanced warning of this. and they started crying, broke down in tears. most people were born after the cuban revolution here. they've never known anything but the u.s. embargo towards cuba. any hope at all that that could change is incredibly significant. historic day here as a glimmer of hope. >> certainly is. patrick oppmann, the only u.s. television correspondent reporting from havana right now. patrick, stand by.
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alina machado is in little havana, a section of miami, a lot of cuban americans live there. what's been the reaction there, alina? >> reporter: first i want to set the scene to get a sense of what's going on here. we're on eighth street in little havana in miami. there's a police presence here. people are slowing down, honking their horns, kind of showing their response to the fact that change is on the way. here at versailles, we've been talking to people all day. if you come over here, you will actually find a small but vocal group of protesters. this man over here, let's see if we can show you the sign he has. he's been very adamant about his position showing that he is upset, he is disappointed, he is angered by president obama's announcement today. that is what we've been hearing most of the day from most of the people here. and that is particularly the case when we're talking about the older generation of cubans, the people who came here in the
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'50s and the '60s. people like my parents who lived through the transition in cuba and then left the island because of political persecution and other things that happen. that group is very vocal, very upset about the talk of any change. then you have the younger generation of cubans that we've been talking to here and there. they're not out here as much as the older generation. they say maybe change isn't that bad. so you see the generational divide when it comes to the opinion of what is coming and whether it's a good thing or not, wolf. >> stand by, alina, patrick. once again, we're awaiting alan gross. we expect him to be making a statement momentarily now. you're looking at live pictures coming in from the law office, his attorney's washington office. he's going to be making a statement. he flew from havana on a u.s. jet together with two u.s. senators, one u.s.
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representative. they arrived at joint base andrews outside of washington, d.c. and have been whisked to this office. he's together with his wife, judy. we're anxious to hear what he says now that he's back in the united states. senator tom udall of new mexico is with we just got a statement from bob corker of tennessee. he's going to be the new chairman of the senate foreign relations committee. 54 republicans in the next u.s. senate, the majority. there's going to be 46 democrats. 44 democrats, two independents that caucus with the democrats. a careful statement. let me read it to you, senator. this is senator kaworker. i was notified of the release of gross. i'm pleased he'll be reunited with his family after suffering unjust imprisonment and mistreatment by the castro regime. the new u.s. policy is no doubt sweeping and as of now there's no real understanding as to what
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changes the cuban government is prepared to make. we will be closely examining the implications of these major policy changes in the next congress. so it's a pretty cautious statement from the incoming chairman of the senate foreign relations committee. certainly not very critical as marco rubio's statement was. certainly not very supportive as senator patrick leahy's or your statement was. pretty cautious. >> my sense is senator corker -- i've been on the committee a couple years now. very, very thoughtful. he really thinks through issues. he doesn't react in a negative way to things right off the bat. he thinks through. the other thing about this is that he seems to be open for people to make the case. i think that is something very hopeful for this. i remember when i was in the
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house with jeff flake and we voted on an appropriations bill to drop the ban on travel, we had the votes. it was a big vote. president bush told us he would veto the bill and we had to take it out. we had the votes in the house to do something that was pretty extensive like this. i think if we address the case and focus on what's at issue here, it's freedom and democracy, the american people being the best ambassadors to go down there and represent this country, that is really what's at issue. i think if people understand that, they're going to realize that there's a lot of very hopeful things that can flow out this. >> you are pretty happy about this as we await alan gross, i want to go back to havana. charlie rangel is in havana right now. why are you in havana right now?
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>> i was here to exchange advancements that have been made here in relation to the treatment of diabetes. i was here with other members of congress and we've been concerned about normalization and they said don't talk about it. something is going to happen. i have never been more proud of being an american. the cuban people are dancing in the street and so many members of congress and americans are proud of the president for taking this historic position. >> what do you say to those lawmakers, your colleagues, not all republicans, some democrats, who think the united states should not make these kinds of concessions to what they describe as this brutal repressive regime in havanhavan. >> you know, we're doing business with vietnam. we're doing business with china. and certainly we don't have the same standards there. i know as it relates to the
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fight on terrorism, this solidifies people in our he hemispear. it appears that it appears the president of cuba had more respect for our president than he did. and in any event we're moving forward. it's all good. it's all positive and people will be speaking from the streets of havana, new york, and california and miami and i think that's the best cure for the relationship that's been so poor in the last half a century. >> while you're there, i know that you got a crazy schedule,
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are you going to have a chance to meet with the cuban president, congressman? >> no. no. no. i met with people from the administration, but i haven't met with the president. it's not on my schedule to meet with him. i have in the past. i think this is the day for president castro and president obama to explain to the american people how this is so important for our countries, for our hemisphere and the crisis in the middle east at least this part of the world will be working more closely together. it's a great thing for our exports, for our farmers, for our scientists. it's a great day for all american in this hemisphere. >> congressman, thanks very much for joining us. >> thank you. >> have a safe flight back to the united states. let's get some reaction.
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gloria, this has been a tough decision for the president. as we say, he wanted to do this normalization of relations with cuba for a long time but he's been blocked repeatedly in the last five years by the alan gross imprisonment if you will. i think it's fair to say he was hoping and it may turn out to be true that one of his legacies would be that he opened the door in the normalization of relat n relations which earlier presidents wanted to do and he managed to achieve. >> he opened the door today, wolf. the question is whether congress is going to slam it back in his face. i would like to know what you guys think about this. congress has to approve the funding for example, for any kind of embassy there. congress itself has to vote to lift the embargo. you're going to have republican control of the congress and although while this doesn't fall along democratic/republican lines totally, you have chairman mendendez complaining about what
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the president did, i would argue the white house shouldn't be optimistic about what it can get done with this republican congress. >> hold on one second. i got jake tapper who is over there at the news conference where we're waiting to hear from alan gross. jake is joining us on the phone. jake, set the scene. >> we just heard from a family spokeswoman from the gross family giving us details about what happened exactly today. alan gross was in prison on the phone with his attorney, scott gilbert, yesterday morning when he was told he was going to be released from prison. we're told that that was followed by a long silent pause from mr. gross and then he said i'll believe it when i see it. but this morning at andrews joint air base, his wife, judy, his attorney scott gilbert, and senators flake and leahy got on a plane to havana, cuba. they landed.
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they found alan gross there. they spent about 30 minutes on the ground. we're told that coincidentally while he was visiting with the members of congress -- i'm sorry. that's when he landed on air force. he gets on the plane and on the plane is awaiting him a big bowl of popcorn. that's one of the things he's said to have longed for in more than five years of captivity as well as a corn beef on rye with mustard was waiting for him and potato pancakes for hanukkah with applesauce and sour cream. at 8:45 in the morning, the pilot announced they were leaving cuban airspace, at which point -- i'm being told alan gross is coming out right now. i'll get off the phone. >> all right. this is the news conference. alan gross clearly a very happy man reunited with his family. his wife, judy, his daughters.
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he's from rockville, maryland, outside of washington d.c. had been a u.s. government employee and worked for the agency for international development. went to havana in 2009. went there to try to help the tiny jewish community in havana get some internet access, if you will, on a trade mission -- on various missions over the years since then while he was arrested and then convicted of crimes against the cuban government. many people had gone there to try to bring him out but it has finally happened. he's now a free man. here he comes with his wife, judy. >> this is great.
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happy holiday season to all of you. today is the first day of hanukkah, and i guess so far it's the best hanukkah that i'll be celebrating for a long time. what a blessing it is to be a citizen of this country and thank you, president obama, for everything that you have done today and leading up to today. i want to acknowledge the extraordinary determined efforts of my wife, judy. 44 1/2 years we've been married. i know you're not 44 1/2 anymore and my lawyer and personal moses, scott gilbert. and their efforts to restore my freedom. they have my endless gratitude, love and respect. the relentless and often intense efforts by