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Norwich Man
Integral in Cuba Release

Monday, December 22, 2014
Norwich — An influential U.S. Senate aide who helped to free an American imprisoned in Cuba and restore diplomatic relations with the communist country tracks his foreign policy and humanitarian work as far back as his Upper Valley origins.

Tim Rieser, a long t ime aide to Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., is a Norwich native, a 1976 Dartmouth College graduate and a former public defender in the Green Mountain State.

During the past 18 months of secret Vatican-brokered talks between American and Cuban diplomats, Rieser was a crucial lifeline to Alan Gross, the U.S. Agency for International Development worker accused of espionage and held prisoner by Cuban authorities since 2009.

Two or three times a week, when Gross’ jailers allowed him access to a phone, he and Rieser talked about cars, food, movies, the news, the Cuban economy — anything to keep hope alive for Gross, who had lost at least 100 pounds and had indicated to Rieser that this would be his last year in Cuba , whether or not he was freed. All the while, Rieser knew that Cuban authorities were listening in.

“It was a delicate thing because there were certain things I could tell him, certain things I couldn’t, many things I wanted to but couldn’t,” Rieser said over the phone Sunday. “I could also say that some of the things that I’d say in those conversations were intended for others.

“I didn’t want to suggest over the phone that we were going to succeed because I didn’t want the Cubans to think that they didn’t have to reciprocate. I also wanted to convince Alan that he shouldn’t lose hope because we were making progress; I just couldn’t tell him that I was sure he was going to be released.”

Encouraging Gross and securing his release were a last, critical step to achieve the detente with Cuba that Leahy had long desired, Rieser said. If Gross had died in prison, the talks would have collapsed.

Rieser, 62, has worked for Leahy since 1985, and in addition to his duties with the Senate Appropriations Committee, has found humanitarian issues for the senator to pursue. After President Obama lightened restrictions on travel to Cuba in 2011, Rieser saw a chance to reopen diplomatic channels. He visited the White House and told staffers there that the president should make a visit to the embargoed island nation.

“My view is that (Obama) would be received like the pope,” Rieser said. “They would be ecstatic — the Cubans would love him. And nothing would demonstrate more strongly that the Cold War in this hemisphere was finally over, that the United States was taking a different path.”

Back then, his suggestion was brushed off, Rieser said, but now, Obama has indicated that such a visit isn’t out of the question.

In Sunday’s interview, Rieser traced a path to last week’s diplomatic coup that began in the early 1990s, when Leahy first developed an interest in Cuba, and included Leahy’s work on the cases of Eli an Gonzalez, the marooned Cuban minor, and the Cuban Five, a group of men convicted of spying on the United States. Throughout that time, the senator and his foreign policy aide built credibility with Cuban authorities that later helped them serve as liaisons between Washington and Havana.

Early on, Rieser and Leahy realized that demanding Gross’ release would not be enough.

“(The Cuban authorities) do not respond well to being bullied or to ultimatums,” Rieser said. “They want to be treated respectfully.”

Gross’ freedom and the reopening of relations with Cuba depended on the freedom of the three Cuban Five members who remained jailed, and negotiations were necessary, Rieser decided.

Around the time that Obama was scheduled to meet with Pope Francis at the Vatican, Leahy and Rieser learned that Cuba’s cardinal, Jaime Ortega, was headed to Rome as well. Leahy wrote to Ortega, asking him to encourage the pope to raise Gross’ and the Cuban Five’s cases with Obama. Pope Francis did just that, and later passed Ortega a letter meant for the White House, which the cardinal handed off to Leahy.

After Leahy and Rieser helped lay the foundations for talks, White House aides Benjamin Rhodes and Ricardo Zuniga carried home the diplomatic effort that ended in a prisoner exchange and in p lans to establish a U.S. embassy in Cuba for the first time since 1961.

Rieser, who maintains a house in Norwich, said that his education in human rights, the justice system and foreign policy began early, during his years at the Putney School in Putney, Vt.

He also credited his grandparents, his mother and his father, Leonard Rieser, a long-time faculty dean at Dartmouth who led the board of the Montshire Museum in Norwich and served as founding director of the college’s Dickey Center for International 

Rieser said he “went to a very progressive, clinical-type law school,” where he worked in prisons and took immigration cases while still a student.

“It wasn’t like I had any plan,” he added, explaining he didn’t know he would end up working in Congress. While living in Plainfield, Vt., he got to know Leahy’s chief of staff, Ellen McCulloch-Lovell (now soon to retire as president of Marlboro College), and later volunteered for Leahy, whose foreign policy aide at that time was on maternity leave.

After a few more turns, including a humanitarian stint in Sudan, Rieser became the senator’s full-time aide in 1985.

Leahy’s spokesman provided a statement from the senator, who said of Rieser’s work, “Changing our Cuba policy and bringing Alan Gross home have been high priorities for me. Tim has been relentless and effective in helping me turn those goals into realities. He’s in public service for all the right reasons and in the very best Vermont tradition.”

Rieser said that he will have to pick a new cause to champion, though he isn’t yet sure what it will be.

“There’s a lot of problems in the world,” he said. “You have to figure out where you can make a difference.”

Rob Wolfe can be reached at or 603-727-3242.

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