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Former Prisoner Recalls Sanders Saying, 'I Don't Know What's So Wrong' With Cuba

American Alan Gross, a prisoner in Cuba for five years during the Obama administration, is accusing Bernie Sanders of commending the communist country when the senator came to visit him behind bars.

Sanders visited Cuba as part of a congressional delegation in 2014, along with Sens. Heidi Heitkamp and Jon Tester.

During the one-hour meeting, Sanders told the prisoner that he didn't understand why others criticized Cuba, Gross said in an interview with NPR.

"He said, quote: 'I don't know what's so wrong with this country,' " Gross recalled.

Sanders' campaign declined to comment about the meeting with Gross, and Tester said he did not recall the discussion.

A source close to Heitkamp said the then-North Dakota senator remembered that Sanders seemed to disregard the meeting with Gross and that an uncomfortable exchange occurred, but did not remember the exact remark.

Sanders has long faced criticism for remarks he has made about autocratic governments, most recently in an interview last week with 60 Minutes.

During the interview, Sanders gave qualified praise to deceased Cuban leader Fidel Castro, citing the country's high literacy rate.

"We're very opposed to the authoritarian nature of Cuba. But it's unfair to simply say that everything is bad," Sanders told 60 Minutes. "When Fidel Castro came into office, you know what he did? He had a massive literacy program. Is that a bad thing, even though Fidel Castro did it?"

This follows other positive comments Sanders has made about dictatorial regimes in Cuba, Nicaragua and the Soviet Union over the course of his decades-long political career.

Gross, who now says he opposes Sanders' campaign for president, was arrested in December 2009 after completing a U.S. Agency for International Development subcontract. He was in Cuba working to expand Internet access to the country's small Jewish community, beyond the restrictive Internet regulations set by the Castro government.

He spent 1,841 days in detention, during which he lost five teeth and over 100 pounds. He also said his interrogators threatened to pull out his fingernails and to hang him.

"The first year of my captivity was akin to sensory deprivation because I saw about 20 minutes of sunlight during the first year," Gross said.

The Obama administration and Gross' advocates said he was wrongfully convicted. He was ultimately released by Cuba in exchange for the U.S. government releasing three Cubans convicted of spying.

The congressional delegation visited Gross in Cuba in 2014 to press for his release.

Gross said Heitkamp and Tester brought him a big bag of peanut M&M's, a memory that Gross remains fond of today because of his undernourishment at the time. Sanders brought an issue of The Atlantic magazine. Gross was also allowed to wear civilian clothes for the visit — a treat because normally he was allowed to wear only prison pajamas.

He said he had a pleasant conversation with Heitkamp and Tester, while Sanders remained mostly quiet for the duration of their one-hour meeting.

"Senator Sanders didn't really engage much in the conversation," Gross said.

But near the end, the Vermont senator offered a comment to the detained American, saying he didn't see what was so wrong with the country.

Gross, as a prisoner in that country, said he took offense to the remark.

"I just think, you know, it was a stupid thing for him to do," Gross told NPR. "First, how could he not have seen the incredible deterioration of what was once the grandeur of the pre-Castro era. And two, how could be so insensitive to make that remark to a political hostage — me!"

Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks at a Bernie 2020 presidential campaign rally at the Los Angeles Convention Center on March 1.
/ Michael Tullberg/Getty Images
Michael Tullberg/Getty Images
Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks at a Bernie 2020 presidential campaign rally at the Los Angeles Convention Center on March 1.

Gross, now retired and splitting his time between Tel Aviv, Israel, and Washington, D.C., said that he felt compelled to speak out about Sanders' comments now because of the interview that the senator gave to 60 Minutes and his reference to the issue in the debates.

"I mean, it's relevant now. The guy's running for president of the United States," Gross said. "And for him to make those statements demonstrating a basic lack of a grasp on reality is problematic to me. I don't want to see this guy in the White House."

Gross had alluded to this story before, in a podcast with Politico in 2016. But as he told the story he backtracked.

"I had the impression that Bernie didn't see that there was so much wrong with the country that he was visiting," Gross told Politico, before adding: "Oh, no, no, no. Not really. Not really. He didn't say so much as that."

Gross says now that he didn't want to cause a stir.

"I wanted to soften the blow at the time because I didn't really think it was all that relevant to what we were talking about for the podcast," he said.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tim Mak is NPR's Washington Investigative Correspondent, focused on political enterprise journalism.