Alan Gross, the 64-year-old American who has been imprisoned by Cuban authorities since 2009, is an unremarkable man on the surface. He could be a friend or colleague, or an uncle you’ve been meaning to call.

Yet what distinguishes Gross from most of the rest of us, myself included, is his courage. As a sub-contractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development, Gross traveled to Cuba to help private citizens gain access to the Internet, and thus to news and information not managed or manufactured by the Cuban government. Gross likely knew that his work was dangerous, but he may have underestimated the risk he was taking. In a heartbreaking letter to President Obama, Gross recounted the many ways his wife and daughters have suffered in his absence. He beseeched the president to intervene in his case.

And so Gross, a husband and father from Maryland who seems to want nothing more than to be reunited with his family, has reignited the decades-long debate over how the United States should deal with Cuba, a rogue state that continues to adhere to Marxist-Leninist one-party rule long after the collapse of its Soviet patron.

While some lawmakers, including Cuban-American Sens. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ), have urged the Obama administration not to negotiate — but instead to demand Gross’s unconditional release — Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) has led the chorus of those calling for the president to play ball with Cuba’s rulers, or rather to “not shrink from the obligation to negotiate for his freedom.”

What the Cuban government wants most is a relaxation of the economic sanctions the U.S. government first imposed on the island nation in 1963, when it became clear that Fidel Castro intended to align his new regime with the Soviet Union and to have Cuba serve as a staging ground for armed insurgencies throughout Latin America.