Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’ recent comments about Cuba and Fidel Castro resulted in journalists’ rediscovery of a meeting Sanders and two other U.S. Senators (Heidi Heitkamp (Dem., ND) and Jon Tester (Dem., MT)) had in February 2014 with Alan Gross, a U.S. citizen then in a Cuban prison.
Gross in 2009 had been arrested in Cuba for bringing communications equipment to Jewish synagogues on the island under a subcontract with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Gross then was tried and convicted for violating Cuban laws and sentenced to 15 years in prison, and in 2014 as a result of his poor health, the U.S. was seeking his release from the Cuban prison. On December 17, 2014, as part of the U.S.-Cuba agreement to embark on normalization of relations, Gross was released from the Cuban prison in exchange for the U.S. release of three Cubans from U.S. prison.
In a March 2020 interview by National Public Radio (NPR), Gross recalled the hour-long prison meeting in February 2014 with the three senators and his pleasant conversation with Heitkamp and Tester while Sanders was silent until the end. Then Sanders said he did not see what was wrong with Cuba.
At the time Gross had lost a lot of weight and teeth as a result of mistreatment, and he told NPR that he was offended by Sanders’ comment. “I just think, you know, it was a stupid thing for him to do. 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 he be so insensitive to make that remark to a political hostage — me!”
Gross added in the interview, this Sanders’ comment is “relevant now. The guy’s running for president of the United States. And for him to make those statements [in 2014] demonstrating a basic lack of a grasp on reality is problematic for me. I don’t want to see this guy in the White House.”
 Mak, Former Prisoner Recalls Sanders Saying, ‘I Don’t Know What’s So Wrong with Cuba, NPR (Mar. 4, 2020); ’I don’t know what’s so bad about this country’: Bernie Sanders told a Alan Gross prisoner in Cuba, Diario de Cuba (Mar. 5, 2020); Edwards, Cuba: Sanders Meets with Imprisoned American, http://www.sanders.senate.gov (Feb. 11, 2014).
 Davis, Alan Gross Gains the Freedom From Cuba He Thought Would Never Come, N.Y. Times (Dec. 17, 2014); The American Prisoner Alan Gross and Cuban-American Relations, N.Y. Times (Dec. 17, 2014). See also these posts of dwkcommentaries.com: U.S. and Cuba Embark on Reconciliation (Dec. 21, 2014); President Obama’s Strategic Timing of Announcement of U.S.-Cuba Reconciliation (Dec. 26, 2014); U.S. Imprisonment of “The Cuban Five” and Their Recent Releases from U.S. Prison (Dec. 31, 2014).
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Sanders Denies 2014 Comment to Alan Gross
On March 8, 2020, Bernie Sanders told Chris Wallace of Fox News, “I remember that [February 2014] trip. I remember that trip very well, and I remember the terrible conditions that Mr. Gross lived in. His teeth were rotting. I did not make that statement. Why Mr. Gross is saying that, I have no idea. But I did not make that statement.”
Sanders also said, “Cuba is an authoritarian country. I speak out for democracy all over the world, whether it is in Cuba, whether it is in Saudi Arabia, wherever it is.”
A spokesman for one of the two other senators on that trip, Jon Tester (Dem., MT), recently told the Miami Herald that Tester did not remember hearing Sanders make the statement.
Smiley, Bernie Sanders denies telling political prisoner ‘I don’t know what’s so wrong with Cuba,
Miami Herald (Mar. 8, 2020) https://www.miamiherald.com/news/politics-government/article241008116.html