HAVANA TIMES — Four US Congresspersons were in Havana on Monday to visit with imprisoned Maryland resident Alan Gross and meet with Cuban officials, with the aim of promoting negotiations to free the prisoner now in his fifth year of a fifteen year sentence, reported dpa news.
“It is of the interest to both our countries to start negotiations, not just talks,” said California Congresswoman Barbara Lee, heading the parliamentary group of four Democratic Party representatives. She spoke at a brief press conference in Havana.
“It is time for both countries to make a serious commitment to enter into negotiations without preconditions,” said Lee.
Gross was arrested in December 2009 and later sentenced to 15 years in prison for crimes against the integrity of the State. Cuban authorities caught Gross carrying sophisticated telecommunications equipment prohibited on the island. He was working for a well-funded, secret USAID program designed to topple the Cuban government.
The Gross case is one of the more thorny issues that hamper relations between Washington and Havana, which have not had diplomatic ties for more than half a century.
Besides Rep. Lee, the congressional delegation includes Gregory Meeks (NY), Sam Farr (CA), and Emanuel Clever (Missouri). They met with Gross for an hour and half, according to sources of the delegation.
The group then met for lunch with Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez, according to reports.
Farr said the aim of the visit is to “use our voice to break the ice” in relations between the two countries.
Raul Castro’s government has repeatedly offered negotiations to the White House for an exchange for intelligence agents from the group known as the Cuban Five, imprisoned in the US since 1998 for espionage.
Three of them are still in prison (two served out their terms in 2011 and 2013), one sentenced to double life. The Obama administration has thus far refused to link the two cases.
Gross, 65, went on a hunger strike in early April for several days demanding that Washington and Havana reach an agreement to free him. He said shortly after through his lawyers that he is determined to return to his country within the next year either “dead or alive.”
Gross, who worked for Development Alternatives Inc., contracted by USAID, said his mission in Cuba was only to provide Internet access to the Jewish community on the island. At one point he said he was unaware of the bigger picture of the USAID program.
USAID was in recent weeks in the center of criticism in the United States and Cuba after Associated Press revealed that for years it had financed a secret “Cuban Twitter” program on the island to encourage protests against the regime.