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The strange tale of how the U.S. government helped ‘Cuban Five’ spy’s wife get pregnant

Gerardo Hernandez, right, member of the “Cuban Five,” touches the belly of his pregnant wife, Adriana Perez, at a concert in Havana on Dec. 20. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)

Big stick diplomacy. Dollar diplomacy. Ping-pong diplomacy. Diplomatic negotiations go by a lot of funny names.  The latest: Sperm diplomacy.

Sometime during the 18 months leading up to last week’s announcement Cuba and the United States would resume diplomatic ties, the U.S. government agreed to transfer an imprisoned Cuban spy’s frozen sperm to his wife living in Panama, the Associated Press reported.

Ernesto Londoño, writing in the New York Times, called it “one of the strangest subplots in the annals of secret negotiations between Washington and Havana.”

The spy in question was Gerardo Hernández, one of the three members of the “Cuban Five” released last week by the U.S. government. (The first was released in 2011; another was released earlier this year.)

Considered national heroes in Cuba, the five spies were convicted in 2001 for espionage and conspiracy to commit murder for their involvement in a 1996 incident during which Cuban fighters shot down two planes carrying U.S. citizens.

Hernández’s wife, Adriana Pérez, really wanted to have children with her husband. Unfortunately he was serving two life sentences in federal prison in California. As the wife of a national hero, Pérez may have had some pull with Cuban officials, who first approached their American counterparts about arranging a conjugal visit in 2010, according to the New York Times.

But alas, conjugal visits aren’t allowed in federal prison. And even if they were, Pérez couldn’t get a visa to see her husband. The United States suspected she too might be a spy, according to the Times.

Enter Pérez’s next best hope: U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), a longtime advocate for improved relations with Cuba who famously gave Cuban President Raul Castro his first taste of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream last year.

Leahy is the most senior member of the Senate and Chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs.

Pérez, now 44, met with Leahy and his wife, Marcelle Pomerleau Leahy, in a Havana hotel room last year. “It was an emotional meeting,” Leahy recalled in an interview with Londoño. “She wanted to have a baby before she got too old. She was deeply in love with her husband.”

Leahy left convinced that helping the couple conceive was the right thing to do for both humanitarian and diplomatic reasons. He assigned the task to his foreign policy aide Tim Rieser.

Rieser found out that artificial insemination had been approved in the past by the Federal Bureau of Prisons and set about making it happen. He got the necessary signatures from State Department and Justice Department officials.

Cuban officials collected the sperm sample from Hernández and took it to Panama, where the procedure took place, paid for by the Cuban government. The first attempt failed, but about eight months ago Pérez got pregnant on her second attempt, Rieser told the AP.

He also got permission for Pérez to visit Hernández twice in the past 18 months. She had only seen her husband once in more than ten years. He arranged for another member of the “Cuban Five” arrested along with Hernández to get the medicine he needed as well.

The goodwill gestures went over well with Cuba officials, for whom the return of those five prisoners was a priority.

“I wanted to make clear to them that we cared about the treatment of their people, just as we expected them to care about the treatment of ours,” Rieser told the Times.

While the sperm arrangement was in the works, Rieser was also talking to Cuban officials about improving conditions for Alan Gross, an American subcontractor imprisoned in Havana for five years. Gross had been on a hunger strike and threatened to commit suicide. According to the Times, Rieser convinced Cuban officials to provide Gross with a computer and printer and turn of the lights in his cell at night.

“Like a number of other things that we did and the Cubans did, (it contributed) to a better kind of atmosphere for the talks that were necessary to bring about Alan’s release and a change in U.S. policy,” Rieser told the AP.

Last Wednesday, Hernández and the remaining members of the “Cuban Five” returned to Cuba in exchange for an unidentified U.S. intelligence agent. Gross was also released as a humanitarian gesture.

Sometime in the next two weeks, Hernández and his wife expect the arrival of a baby girl.

Related: Meet the “Cuban Five”