WASHINGTON – It’s not surprising that a Member of Congress might get a call from a constituent a few days before the midterm elections, just to wish them good luck. That’s especially true if the supporter had once trudged door-to-door, handing out leaflets and posting yard signs during your first Congressional campaign 12 years ago.
But when the call hit the phone of Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., the number read “Unknown.” And while the call indeed came from a constituent, it didn’t emanate from Van Hollen’s 8th Congressional District of Maryland in the Washington, D.C. suburbs.
The call originated from Cuba. And on the other line was Alan Gross, a Van Hollen constituent and political supporter. And at that moment, Gross was a political prisoner of Raul Castro in Havana.
“They gradually loosened up his telephone privileges over time,” said Van Hollen of Gross and the Cuban government.
Early Wednesday, Van Hollen, flanked by Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., drove to Joint Base Andrews near the nation’s capital, boarded a plane designated as Air Force One when used by President Obama and made a pre-dawn flight to Cuba to bring Gross back to American terra firma.
“We had frequent flyer miles, you see,” joked Leahy when asked how the Congressional trio became Gross’s diplomatic escorts.
“We were only on the ground (in Havana) for about 30 minutes,” said Van Hollen.
The entire Gross operation seemed to center around telephone calls – or communications of some sort. Some methods more divine than others. In fact the Cuban regime arrested and imprisoned Gross five years ago after he hauled mobile phones and computers to elderly Jews in Cuba without the proper government permits. Gross worked as a subcontractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) which administered a “democracy promotion” program in Cuba. Havana accused Gross of spying for the U.S.
Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., lobbied hard for years to spring Gross. The Maryland Democrat said Vice President Biden notified her about the release by phone Tuesday. Van Hollen said National Security Advisor Susan Rice called him on Monday to tell him the U.S. would alter its diplomatic posture with Cuba.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., is the son of Cuban immigrants who became U.S. citizens in the mid-1970s. Rubio said he knew of the pending policy changes Tuesday night as the Senate voted to confirm Tony Blinken as Deputy Secretary of State.
“I chose not to discuss it at the time because I did not want to imperil the safety and well-being of Mr. Gross, who, as I understood it, was either en route or potentially en route within a few hours,” said Rubio.
But Rubio didn’t hold back when Secretary of State John Kerry phoned him around 10 am Wednesday to discuss parameters of the new Cuba policy.
“I expressed to Secretary Kerry my belief that they are being incredibly naïve if not willfully ignorant about the impact this is going to have on Cuba,” chafed Rubio. “This fantasy that somehow if more American products are available to Cuba and more travelers go to Cuba that all of a sudden democracy is going to spring out is outrageous and ridiculous.”
Rubio was anything if not passionate in his opposition of the new standards.
“I am committed to doing everything I can to unravel as many of these changes as possible,” warned Rubio. “I anticipate we’re going to have a very interesting couple of years discussing how (the administration is) going to get an ambassador nominated and how you’re going to get an embassy funded.”
Rubio may have let Kerry have it during their Wednesday morning exchange. But perhaps the most emotional call of the day came from President Obama himself. Van Hollen told Fox that the president phoned Gross as he winged his way from Cuba back toward Washington.
“As soon as we crossed into U.S. airspace, Alan grave a big hurrah and put his hands up,” said Van Hollen.
Leahy said Gross grabbed him when the plane cleared Cuba.
“We were both shaking,” said the Vermont Democrat.
While on board the plane, Gross devoured a bowl of popcorn for which he clamored during his captivity. And since he’s Jewish and it’s Hanukkah, Gross also indulged in latkes, smothered in applesauce and sour cream.
Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., was one of several lawmakers who met Gross on the tarmac when he landed at Joint Base Andrews Wednesday morning.
“Alan Gross returns on the first day of Hanukkah. Hanukkah is the celebration of lights. It’s about dedication. It’s the celebration of miracles,” noted Cardin.
Jewish tradition holds there wasn’t enough oil to burn for more than one night in the Temple. But surprisingly, the oil lasted for eight days. Jews consider this to be a miracle.
“It’s the best Hanukkah I’ll be celebrating for a long time,” said Gross.
And Gross’s release may have been the byproduct of an interdenominational appeal.
The Vatican had long been involved in trying to win Gross’s freedom. And this petition - orchestrated via communication modes more ecclesiastical than the telephone – apparently went right to the top.
“When we knew when his Holiness was going to be visiting Cuba, we called upon the Papal Nuncio (the Vatican’s official diplomatic representation in Washington). We asked if the good offices of the Pope would raise the issue. We put it in the hands of the Vatican,” Mikulski said. “We kept it on the Vatican’s radar. They talk to higher powers than we do. I don’t know if it’s radar. Maybe Angels. Cherubim. Seraphim. They go for it.”
“The Holy Father wishes to express his warm congratulations for the decision taken by the Governments of the United States of America and Cuba to establish diplomatic relations,” said the Holy See in a statement. The communiqué noted that Pope Francis encouraged President Obama and Cuban leader Castro “to resolve humanitarian questions of common interest” to “initiate a new phase in relations.”
Whatever the intercession, Rubio, a Catholic, made it clear he appreciated “the influence that His Holiness had” when it came to liberating Gross.
But Rubio had an entreaty for the Holy Father.
“I would ask His Holiness to take up the cause of freedom of democracy, which is critical for a free people, to be truly free,” requested Rubio. “I think the people of Cuba deserve the same chances to have democracy as the people of Argentina have had where He comes from.”
Those who favor the U.S. establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba believe the move will prompt U.S. businesses and tourism to flourish on the island. Jeff Flake abhorred the idea that the U.S. regularly blocks Americans who want to visit Cuba.
“If someone is going to limit my travel, it should be a communist. Not my own government,” argued Flake.
Which means if the Obama Administration has its way, there will soon be a lot of Americans making phone calls about Cuba. Calls to travel agents to book hotels and make flight arrangements.
Capitol Attitude is a weekly column written by members of the Fox News Capitol Hill team. Their articles take you inside the halls of Congress, and cover the spectrum of policy issues being introduced, debated and voted on there.