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National

How A Cuban Spy Had A Baby While Imprisoned

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

In Cuba, Adriana Perez is expected to give birth to a baby girl in about two weeks. That wouldn't be news, except that her husband, Gerardo Hernandez, spent most of the last decade and a half in federal prison in the United States. We're now learning that the U.S. government helped the couple conceive a baby through artificial insemination while Hernandez was serving a double life prison sentence for heading a Cuban spy ring.

It's a bizarre footnote to the new chapter being written in U.S.-Cuban relations. And NPR's Scott Horsley joins us now to explain. And Scott, here's what we know, right? Hernandez returns to Cuba last week as part of a prisoner swap that accompanied the diplomatic breakthrough and, of course, eyebrows are raised when he's greeted by his pregnant wife.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Very pregnant.

CORNISH: What's the backstory?

HORSLEY: Well, Adriana Perez got pregnant about eight and a half months ago while her husband was still very much behind bars in the U.S. And the Justice Department now confirms the government here helped to make that possible. There are no conjugal visits allowed in the federal prison system, but there is a precedent for prisoners using long-distance insemination. And at the urging of Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy, the government agreed to allow that in this case.

Senator Leahy and his wife, Marcelle, had been approached by Mrs. Perez during a visit to Cuba last year. She was afraid that with her husband locked up, she would never be able to have kids. And Leahy says, as parents and grandparents, he and his wife were sympathetic and so they took up the case because he said it was the humane thing to do.

CORNISH: And we should know that Senator Leahy has been working to improve U.S.-Cuban relations for many years now.

HORSLEY: That's right. And like the White House, he understood that in order for that to happen, Cuba would have to agree to release Alan Gross, the USAID contractor who'd been held prisoner in Cuba for the last five years. So Leahy and his staff had been very active trying to win Gross's release and to improve his living conditions as long as he was in prison. And that is the context for this move. See, there was no direct quid pro quo here, but allowing the long-distance insemination could be seen as a trust-building move by the U.S. government. I'm told that it took a couple of tries for it to work. But Mrs. Perez is now looking forward to having that baby girl in a couple weeks. And Senator Leahy said, quote, "we rejoice this Christmas season that it worked."

CORNISH: Scott, those who were angered by the release of Mr. Hernandez will no doubt be wondering why the government allowed this. I'm sure they're not happy about it - a very surprising twist in this story.

HORSLEY: Yeah - in a story that has been full of surprising twists. I mean, this is going to make quite a movie someday with the secret talks in Canada between the U.S. and Cuba negotiating teams - personal pressure from Pope Francis. And that's just the last 18 months. The personal connections go back much further. Senator Leahy's been battling the U.S. embargo against Cuba for more than 20 years now.

There was a story in the Brattleboro Reformer newspaper about Leahy's first visit to Cuba in the early 1990s when Fidel Castro offered him some local ice cream. Senator Leahy said well, that's good, but it's not as good as Vermont ice cream. And when he got home, he sent Castro some Ben & Jerry's. So there's a long history of diplomacy and dry ice, and after two decades, we're finally seeing a thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations.

CORNISH: That NPR's Scott Horsley. Scott, thank you.

HORSLEY: My pleasure, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.