American held by Castro regime claims Bernie Sanders made excuses for Cuba during prison visit
New York, Jan 05, 2016. Democratic Presidential hopeful Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont speaks during a campaign stop at the Town Hall Theater in New York City. photo by Trevor Collens

An American who was imprisoned for five years in Cuba claims Sen. Bernie Sanders made excuses for his captors during a visit from a congressional delegation.

Alan Gross, who was held in the communist country during the Obama administration, said Sanders made remarks that troubled him during a 2014 visit with Sens. Heidi Heitkamp and Jon Tester, reported NPR.

"He said, quote: 'I don't know what's so wrong with this country,'" Gross told the network.

The Sanders campaign declined to comment on the meeting, and Tester said he did not recall the conversation.

A source close to Heitkamp, who lost her re-election bid in 2018, said the former senator remembered that Sanders seemed dismissive of the meeting with Gross and recalled an uncomfortable exchange, but did not remember the specifics.

"Sen. Sanders didn't really engage much in the conversation," Gross said.

Heitkamp and Tester brought a large bag of peanut M&M's to Gross, who recalls the candy fondly because he was malnourished in prison, but he said Sanders brought an issue of The Atlantic magazine.

Sanders has been criticized in the past for his comments about autocratic governments, especially Cuba -- as recently as last week.

"We're very opposed to the authoritarian nature of Cuba, but it's unfair to simply say that everything is bad," Sanders told "60 Minutes." "When Fidel Castro came into office, you know what he did? He had a massive literacy program. Is that a bad thing, even though Fidel Castro did it?"

He has also made positive remarks about regimes in Nicaragua and the Soviet Union, but Gross said the recent praise for Castro's rule spurred him to speak out against Sanders -- whose candidacy he opposes.

"I mean, it's relevant now. The guy's running for president of the United States," Gross told NPR. "And for him to make those statements demonstrating a basic lack of a grasp on reality is problematic to me. I don't want to see this guy in the White House."

Gross has alluded to this story before, during a 2016 interview, but he decided to provide more detail after the "60 Minutes" interview aired.

"I just think, you know, it was a stupid thing for him to do," Gross told NPR. "First, how could he not have seen the incredible deterioration of what was once the grandeur of the pre-Castro era, and, two, how could be so insensitive to make that remark to a political hostage — me!"

Gross spent 1,841 days in detention, where he lost five teeth and more than 100 pounds, after he was arrested in 2009 while working as a U.S. government contractor to expand Internet access to the country's small Jewish community.

The Obama administration believed he was wrongfully convicted and eventually won his release by agreeing to release three Cubans convicted by the U.S. of spying.