Ex-Cuba prisoner Alan Gross: Congress should 'grow a pair'

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Story highlights

  • Gross' remarks comes just one week before President Barack Obama travels to Cuba
  • Gross described his detention as plagued with malnutrition that caused him to lose teeth

Washington (CNN)Alan Gross, an American aid worker imprisoned in Cuba for five years, called on Congress to "grow a pair" and lift the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba just days before President Barack Obama makes a historic visit to the island nation.

"Congress needs to grow a pair," said Gross during remarks at the National Press Club in Washington. "Cry me a river, build me a bridge and get over the failure of the embargo by lifting it."
    Doing so, Gross said, would expose the lack of productivity in Cuba's work force as a major cause of Cuba's economic problems and deny the government the ability to solely blame the trade embargo.
    Gross' remarks comes just one week before President Barack Obama travels to Cuba to meet with President Raul Castro. Obama will become the first sitting U.S. president to visit Havana in 88 years.
    "I think he is doing the right thing by going there," said Gross without elaborating further.
    Gross was jailed by the Castro government in 2009 for importing banned satellite communications equipment to Cuba as part of a U.S. effort to help Cubans get online. Cuba has the lowest level of Internet access in the hemisphere.
    The island also provides low pay to its citizens. The majority of Cuban's only receive on average $20 a month in wages, regardless of their jobs or degree of effort. The Cuban government has said that people are compensated with free housing, education and health care but has also acknowledged that low wages have stifled productivity.
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    The American USAID subcontractor was freed in December 2014 as part of a prisoner swap that paved the way for the re-establishment of diplomatic relations between Havanna and Washington.
    Gross described his detention as plagued with malnutrition that caused him to lose teeth and more than 100 pounds over the course of his detention.
    "The first year was a year of sensory deprivation. I lost 70 pounds the first year not because I exercised so much but because the food was really bad," said Gross. "The food moved. There were critters in the food."
    The worst part of his imprisonment, Gross said, was the isolation.
    "The first year I wrote a song called 'No tengo nada,' which means I have nothing," Gross recalled. "The reason I chose that title is because I absolutely had nothing. I had no television, no newspapers, no books. I wasn't allowed to have paper and pen, so I couldn't write."
    Despite the ordeal, Gross said he would like to return to Cuba.
    "I would return to Cuba in a heartbeat," said Gross. "I'd go back mainly so that my wife and I can enjoy Cuba a little bit and I can introduce my wife to some of the people that I lived with for five years and their families who are now my family."