Alan Gross thought he would be freed from Cuban jail in weeks, not years

Alan Gross on Cuban captivity: "I didn't have any idea I'd be there for five years."

Alan Gross, the former government contractor from Potomac who spent five years locked up in a Cuban jail, says he thought his bosses would intervene after his arrest in 2009 and he'd quickly be freed.

In his first interview since his release last year in a historic deal between the United States and Cuba, Gross was asked by Scott Pelley of "60 Minutes" whether he expected that the government would come to his aid.

"I absolutely did for the first two weeks," Gross says in an excerpt released by CBS on Friday. "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."

Gross, 66, traveled to Cuba several times as part of a U.S. Agency for International Development project to connect the island's small Jewish community to the Internet. But on his fifth trip, he was taken into custody, convicted of crimes against the state and sentenced to 15 years in prison.

His imprisonment became another sticking point in the long-adversarial relationship between the United States and the communist government 70 miles from Florida. Leaders including former President Jimmy Carter and Pope Francis appealed to Cuban President Raul Castro for Gross' release.

Gross finally was freed last December as a precondition to a deal to re-establish diplomatic relations between the two nations. He spoke to reporters in Washington on the day he was freed and has maintained a lively presence on Twitter, but the "60 Minutes" interview to air Sunday is the first time he has spoken at length to the media about his captivity.

Gross, who went to high school in Baltimore County and attended the University of Maryland, College Park, said he endured threats of execution and torture, and had to devise a strategy to make it through his time in prison.

"They said I'd never see the light of day," he said. "I had to do three things in order to survive, three things every day. I thought about my family that survived the Holocaust. I exercised religiously every day, and I found something every day to laugh at."

Gross' health deteriorated while he was imprisoned. His family worried he might not survive his sentence.

As the fifth anniversary of his arrest loomed last year, there was no public sign of progress in his case. But behind the scenes, American and Cuban diplomats — aided by the Vatican — were negotiating the historic deal to restore relations severed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1961.

President Barack Obama announced that Cuba had granted Gross a humanitarian release, and three Cuban agents convicted of espionage in Florida would be sent home.

Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez traveled to Washington in July to reopen his nation's embassy; Secretary of State John Kerry traveled to Havana the following month to reopen the U.S. Embassy there.

Despite the steps, Americans still face travel restrictions to Cuba, and the wide-ranging trade embargo remains in place. Lifting the embargo would require an act of Congress.

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