American Jewish contractor Alan Gross says exercise, family and humor kept him going though his five-year ordeal after Cuba arrested him and accused him of spying.
In his first major interview since his release late last year, Gross said he faced threats of physical torture from his captors.
“They threatened to hang me. They threatened to pull out my fingernails. They said I’d never see the light of day,” the 66-year-old told CBS television’s 60 Minutes.
“I had to do three things in order to survive, three things every day,” he said, in an extract from a longer interview to be broadcast in full on Sunday.
“I thought about my family that survived the Holocaust. I exercised religiously every day and I found something every day to laugh at.”
Gross was contracted by the US Agency for International Development to deliver electronics to Jewish groups when he was arrested in Havana in December 2009.
Initially accused of espionage, he was tried in 2011 and sentenced to 15 years for committing “acts against the independence and territorial integrity” of Cuba.
Asked whether he had thought that the US government would find a way to get him out, he said: “Oh, I absolutely did for the first two weeks.
“And then I said to myself, ‘Where the hell are they? Where are they?’ I didn’t have any idea I’d be there for five years,” he told CBS.
The US government has always insisted Gross was not an intelligence agent but a development worker trying to connect Cuban communities to the outside world. A specialist in satellite communications, he had previously done such work in around 50 countries in Africa, Asia, Europe and the Middle East.
He had visited Cuba four times before his arrest, delivering computer and satellite gear to the communist island’s small Jewish community. On his fifth journey he was allegedly in possession of an electronic chip that prevents governments from tracking the location of satellite telephone calls.
Gross returned to the United States in December last year, after he was released as part of a historic warming of ties between the former Cold War foes.
Upon his release, Gross credited the advocacy by his wife of 44 years, Judy Gross, and his lawyer, Scott Gilbert, for getting him out of prison, and thanked his own Jewish community for their support.
“It was crucial to my survival knowing that I was not forgotten,” he said.