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Alan Gross and his wife, Judy. Mr. Gross, freed from a Cuban prison earlier in the day, waves after concluding his remarks at a news conference in Washington shortly after arriving in the United States, Dec. 17. Win McNamee/Getty Images

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) welcomed the release of Jewish-American contractor Alan Gross by the Cuban government, but disagreed sharply with the administration over the terms of the prisoner swap that freed Gross, and with a thawing of relations between the two governments.

Jewish organization “are dead wrong” if they favor reestablishment of diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba, Menendez said in response to a reporter’s question at a news conference last Thursday.

Sen. Menendez, a Cuban-American and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations committee, joined colleagues, mostly Republican, in criticizing the sweeping changes announced Dec. 17 by the administration, including the resumption of full diplomatic relations, the opening of an embassy in Havana, and a loosening of trade and travel restrictions.

Those changes were announced along with the deal that saw the release of Gross, 65, who was jailed by the Cubans in 2009 while working as a contractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development. Mr. Gross was in Cuba to set up Internet access for the Cuban Jewish community

Jewish groups, ecstatic over the release of the suburban Washington resident, were cautiously optimistic in greeting news of the thaw.

Dina Siegel Vann, the director of the American Jewish Committee’s Belfer Institute for Latino and Latin American Affairs, said Gross’ release and the opening of ties with Cuba is a twofer for the Jews: In addition to the benefits accrued to all Cubans from open relations, she said, Cuban Jews “will have stronger ties to Jewish organizations, they will be much more in the open.” An estimated 1,000 to 1,500 Jews live in Cuba.

Ms. Vann said improved U.S.-Cuba relations would have a rollover effect, removing obstacles to U.S. ties with other Latin American countries – and this in turn would remove tensions that have affected Jewish communities.

“Cuba and Venezuela have a very interdependent relationship,” she said. “Anti-Semitism and anti-American rhetoric are being used by the regime in Venezuela, and with this that’s being undermined.”

Daniel Mariaschin, who directs B’nai B’rith International, a group with a strong Latin American presence, said a new era of ties “will raise the profile of Latin American communities and interest in those communities.”

Asked by the New Jersey Jewish News at last week’s news conference in Paterson to react to such views, Sen. Menendez said “they are dead wrong for the following reason: Smoking a cigar made by hands that do not get paid directly but are in essence slave labor and sunning yourself on Veradero Beach and having a Cuba Libre – which is an oxymoron – does not liberate the people of Cuba.”

Sen. Menendez said he personally intervened to help American Jews travel to Cuba to help rebuild a synagogue in Havana. “Nurturing the Jewish community or any other community of faith is always a positive thing,” he said.

“But I’ve got to be honest with you,” he added. “I see a lot of these trips and where [they spent] a day or two in the community and the rest of the time they were on the beach. Being on the beach doesn’t liberate the Cuban people. Going to a hotel that is co-owned by the state and co-owned by the military doesn’t free the Cuban people.”

Sen. Menendez suggested that Jewish Americans “should not only nurture the community in Havana but be voices of democracy and human rights. When people go to Cuba, why don’t they meet with human rights activist, with political dissidents, with independent journalists who are struggling inside of a tyranny?” he asked.

Sen. Menendez said Mr. Gross “should have been released immediately and unconditionally five years ago. He committed no crime and was simply working to provide internet access to Cuba’s small Jewish community.”

Sen. Menendez was, however, critical of the deal, technically separate from the Gross release, in which the United States and Cuba agreed to exchange three remaining incarcerated members of the “Cuban Five,” a Florida-based spy ring, for an American spy held in Cuba for 20 years and whose identity remains a secret.

“President Obama’s actions have vindicated the brutal behavior of the Cuban government. There is no equivalence between an international aid worker and convicted spies who were found guilty of conspiracy to commit espionage against our nation,” he said in a Dec. 17 statement.

Added Sen. Menendez: “Trading Mr. Gross for three convicted criminals sets an extremely dangerous precedent. It invites dictatorial and rogue regimes to use Americans serving overseas as bargaining chips. I fear that today’s actions will put at risk the thousands of Americans that work overseas to support civil society, advocate for access to information, provide humanitarian services, and promote democratic reforms.

President Obama insisted that Mr. Gross was not part of the spy exchange and that, in fact, his imprisonment held up changes to the U.S. Cuba relationship he had intended on initiating years ago.

“While I’ve been prepared to take additional steps for some time, a major obstacle stood in our way,” the president said in remarks last Wednesday on the release of Mr. Gross.

New Jersey Jewish News and JTA Wire Service