ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
The sudden thaw in U.S.-Cuban relations was prompted by the release of three Cubans who'd spent more than a decade in American prisons as part of a spy swap. Two other members of the group known as the Cuban Five had already been freed by the U.S. government. In a minute, we'll hear a reaction from Miami. But first, we go to Havana, where NPR's Carrie Kahn reports that the newly freed prisoners are being treated like rock stars.
CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Here in Cuba, they're simply known by their first names and collectively as the Cinco Heroes, the Heroic Five. Their faces are everywhere, on national TV and the official party's newspapers. Cubans got a good look at them after 16 years during last weekend's official TV broadcast of the party's national assembly. The entire hall stood for a rousing standing ovation.
(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)
KAHN: Watching the gathering on a big-screen TV at the Havana bar where he works as a waiter, Omar Rodriquez said seeing the five finally home gives him the chills.
OMAR RODRIQUEZ: (through interpreter) This has been such a long struggle for us to get them here, he says. The whole country is so happy.
KAHN: The five were convicted of espionage by a U.S. federal court in 2001. Their lengthy incarceration has been at the top of the long list of Cuban grievances against the United States. The Castro regime fought a highly public international battle for their release, while at home fueled an equally energetic PR campaign to keep them in the national spotlight.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Spanish, clapping).
KAHN: At a small park across from Havana's iconic sea walkway, Maria Regla sits on a bench watching a fast-paced soccer game. She says the Cuban Five are definitely not terrorists.
MARIA REGLA: (through interpreter) They were there working. They never did anything bad like placing bombs or anything. They were unjustly imprisoned, she says.
KAHN: Interview requests by NPR to talk with the five were denied. Nothing added more to the men's lore than shots of Gerardo Hernandez's pregnant - yes, pregnant - wife, close by his side despite their 16 years apart. Hernandez was quoted in the official newspaper of Cuba, only saying the incredible conception was the work of remote control. The mystery was solved yesterday, when U.S. officials confirmed that Hernandez's wife had been artificially inseminated with her husband's sperm, which was transferred from the U.S. prison. The goodwill gesture was in hopes of getting better treatment for USAID contractor Alan Gross, who was being held in a Cuban prison on charges of importing illegal satellite equipment. Gross was released the same day as the three Cubans. The heroes' homecoming and the impending birth of Hernandez's daughter was the buzz in Old Havana's artisan market. Vendor Nadieska Martinez says their little girl, who will be named Gema, is a national hero too.
NADIESKA MARTINEZ: (through interpreter) She's a hero, says Martinez, because she was made in the empire.
KAHN: Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Havana. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.