More than 20 trips in nearly 20 years of covering Cuba paid off for ABC’s Jim Avila this morning when he broke the news that American contractor Alan Gross would be released from a Cuban prison.
But it didn’t stop there. Gross’s freedom, in exchange for the release of the remaining so-called “Cuban Five” was the key to re-starting diplomatic relations with the island nation just 90 miles from Key West.
“I was told early on that this was not just going to be a prisoner exchange,” Avila told TVNewser from Havana, where he’d just arrived.
“We had information that Gross would be released this week, for about a month,” Avila says. “We held it back at the request of both the White House and the attorney representing Alan Gross for fear that it would cost him his life. That’s why were were able to break it first.”
Avila, a White House correspondent for ABC News, has been closely following Gross’s case. He’s made two trips to Havana in an effort to speak to him. Those requests were denied, but Avila saw something big on the horizon.
“We first started thinking about it a lot in the spring, and we started working with the Cuban government. It was clear to us something was going to happen.”
Avila says things came into focus during Pres. Obama’s trip to Asia last month.
“There were background conversations with members of the NSC which told me that things were percolating and something was in the works. That’s when we started the full court press.”
In another first, ABC “World News Tonight” anchor David Muir sat down with Pres. Obama at the White House this afternoon for his first interview following the announcement. “The White House does not rule out even a visit to Cuba before [Obama] leaves office,” Avila says. “There was almost dreaminess in [White House staffers’] eyes when I compared it to Nixon going to China.”
Avila says Cubans don’t expect an immediate lifting of the embargo, but that “this is a significant first step.”
“Cuba has always been a very pessimistic place,” he says. “This is the most optimistic that I’ve seen it.”