When longtime Cuban spy Gerardo Hernández went free last week from a U.S. prison and flew to Havana for the first time in 16 years, he was unfazed to find his wife – gasp! – very pregnant.
The mystery of that pregnancy emerged Monday, and it will go down in history books as one of the most bizarre subplots in the annals of U.S. diplomacy.
Turns out that Hernández already knew that his 44-year-old wife, Adriana Pérez, was pregnant, and that he is the father, even though he was never physically close to her during his incarceration.
The pregnancy came through artificial insemination, and it was a side deal that paved the way for the much larger and sweeping agreement Wednesday in which Cuba and the United States announced the renewal of diplomatic relations, broken more than half a century ago. Hernández and two other convicted Cuban spies went free as part of the deal.
Call it diplomacy via paternity.
It came about through the office of Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, who has campaigned for years to restore relations with Cuba. In 2010, Leahy began efforts to persuade Cuba to ease up on the harsh conditions imposed on a jailed American in Havana, Alan Gross, a subcontractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development.
In seeking better conditions for Gross, Leahy’s office discovered that Hernández’s wife back in Havana, who reportedly also is an intelligence officer, was hearing the ticking of her biological clock ever louder and was desperate to become pregnant. U.S. officials now say they facilitated the transfer of Hernández’s sperm from the U.S. to the Cuban capital to help improve conditions for Gross, who regained his freedom Wednesday as well and is back in the United States.
“We can confirm the United States facilitated Mrs. Hernández’s request to have a baby with her husband,” said Patrick Rodenbush, a spokesman for the Justice Department. “The request was passed along by Sen. Leahy, who was seeking to improve the conditions for Mr. Gross while he was imprisoned in Cuba.”
A U.S. government official, who was not authorized to speak for the record, confirmed that Pérez was artificially inseminated.
Actually, the procedure was done twice. It didn’t work the first time, said Leahy spokesman David Carle.
Hernández, who was the top Cuban spy in a ring known as the Wasp Network, was shown on Cuban state television several times, starting with his arrival in Havana, caressing his wife’s very pregnant belly.
He was shown again Saturday – along with the other “Cuban Five” freed spies, two of whom gained their freedom in years past – at the closing session of the National Assembly presided over by President Raúl Castro, who led a prolonged ovation for the returned spies.
Then a third time, Hernández appeared as a guest at a concert offered by singer Silvio Rodríguez, a legendary Cuban songwriter and troubadour.
Hernández played coy with journalists who were asking him what was on everyone’s mind: How did his wife get pregnant?
Granma, the official party newspaper, published a story on its website Sunday night with a comment from the freed spy.
“The feeling is huge. Everyone asks us and we’re having fun with all the remarks and speculation. The truth is that it had to be done in silence, including this part, and few details will be given because we don’t want to harm anyone,” Granma quoted Hernández as saying.
“The feeling now, in a word? Delirious,” Hernández told Granma. He noted that he “had to do it by ‘remote control,’ but everything turned out well.”
The Federal Bureau of Prisons does not permit conjugal visits, although on rare occasions artificial insemination has been allowed.
Hernández’s wife is expected to give birth in about two weeks.
In a statement, Leahy recounted how the meeting unfolded.
“In February 2013, during one of our trips to Cuba, my wife Marcelle and I agreed to meet with Adriana (Pérez de) Hernández. She made a personal appeal to Marcelle. She was afraid that she would never have the chance to have a child,” said Leahy, who chairs the State Department and Foreign Operations subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
A senior aide to Leahy, Tim Rieser, told NBC that he accompanied the senator and his wife on the trip to seek better prison conditions for Gross, and discovered that the Cuban agent’s wife wanted to meet with them.
“She was probably 42 or 43 and she had no expectation her husband was ever getting out prison – he was serving two consecutive life sentences – and she was desperate to have a child, knowing she was almost out of time,” Rieser told NBC.
He noted that “as a registered nurse, Marcelle had particular knowledge of the medical realities she was facing. It was the humane thing to do, and we would have done the same for anyone.”
The main impetus, though, appeared to be a desire to improve conditions for Gross, who suffered severely with his imprisonment.
Carle said that Gross was confined to a small room with two roommates 23 hours a day and had lost 100 pounds, besides suffering from other ailments. He was allowed only one hour of exercise a day, with no access to email and only rare access to phones.
Consideration given to the Cuban couple to help them conceive apparently paid off for Gross.
Over time, the Cubans agreed to let two American doctors visit him, he received email and a printer and regular phone service, Carle said. “And he was offered more time for exercise if he wanted it,” he said.
Carle said it was never a quid pro quo situation, in which U.S. officials agreed to do X if the Cubans did Y, but the Castro government was “very appreciative, and it did contribute to the tone and atmosphere that had been built toward making constructive negotiations possible,” he said.
NBC said Hernández’s sperm was collected in the United States and flown to Havana, which the Cubans paid for. A first attempt at pregnancy failed, but a second try earlier this year succeeded.
“We rejoice this Christmas season that it worked,” Leahy said in his statement.