Breaking News Emails
The U.S. senator who paved the way for a Cuban prisoner to impregnate his wife while he was behind bars said Tuesday that his efforts had nothing to do with politics.
Adriana Perez is almost nine months pregnant, thanks to artificial insemination with sperm from convicted spy Gerardo Hernandez — and secret assistance from federal officials.
"It was a human thing. It had nothing to do with the politics of the two countries," Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., told TODAY.
The stage was set for the long-distance conception in February 2013 when Leahy and his wife Marcelle traveled to Cuba as part of his long-standing efforts to improve relations with the United States.
At the time, American contractor Alan Gross was languishing in a Cuban prison, after being convicted of crimes against the Communist island for bringing computer and satellite equipment there. And Hernandez and two other members of the so-called "Cuban Five" spy cabal were in American lockups after being convicted of espionage in 1998.
“Whatever it was going to take to get Alan Gross released was also going to involve a solution for the Cuban prisoners,” Tim Rieser, an aide to Leahy who got the sperm-donation greenlighted, told NBC News.
When Leahy made the trip to Havana last year, Hernandez's wife got wind of the trip and asked to meet with him and his wife.
"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 said.
"Senator Leahy and Marcelle Leahy are parents and grandparents and they sympathized with her on a human level and they wanted to help her, and they did it for her.”
When Rieser got back to the U.S., he started making inquiries about how to fulfill Perez's wish, and reached out to the State Department and the Bureau of Prisons. He learned conjugal visits were not allowed, but that artificial insemination might be a possibility.
“They understood that the Senator’s purpose was purely humanitarian," Rieser said of administration officials who helped. "We were also asking the Cubans to do things that would help improve the condition of Alan Gross.”
Hernandez's sperm was collected in the United States and flown out of the country for the procedure, which the Cubans paid for. The first attempt failed, but Perez got pregnant on the second try.
"We rejoice this Christmas season that it worked," Leahy said in a statement.
"The feeling now, in a word? Delirious."
The operation was a closely held secret that remained under wraps even as Hernandez was sprung last week in a historic shift in U.S. dealings with Havana. His criminal attorney said he was not given advance notice but he knows it gave Perez — who had only seen her husband three times while he was jailed — "a lot of joy."
"It's an amazing, strong bond and a burning love she has for Gerardo," attorney Richard Klugh said.
Hernandez was sentenced to life for murder conspiracy in connection with the deaths of four anti-Castro Cuban exiles whose planes were shot down off Havana in 1996.
The sister of one of the four called the effort to give Hernandez and his wife a shot at parenthood "absurd."
"To me, it's incredible," said Maggie Khuly, sister of Armando Alejandre Jr. "I no longer know what to think of my government. People in Cuban jails are not allowed visits, are in horrible conditions, and here we are going way overboard so that this guy has a child? It doesn't make any sense."
But Leahy said Perez shouldn't be denied the joy of motherhood because of the incident.
"It's tragic that people were shot down, but let's not take it out on a child," he said.
Hernandez, meanwhile, slipped right into the role of expectant father. He was seen caressing Perez's belly at a public event to celebrate his homecoming over the weekend.
"The feeling now, in a word? Delirious," he told the official Cuban newspaper Granma. "I’m not even going to say love. Delirious is what defines it better."
NBC News' Mary Murray and Sandra Lilley contributed to this report.