Cuba lashed back Friday at what it called a campaign of distortions over the health of an imprisoned American contractor, and hinted at retaliation that could include transferring the 63-year-old man from the military hospital where he is being held to a regular prison.
The Foreign Ministry statement marked an escalation in a dispute that has been simmering for 2 1/2 years and that has torpedoed any hope of improved ties between the Cold War enemies. Maryland-native Alan Gross is serving a 15-year term for bringing satellite and other communications equipment into Cuba illegally while on a USAID-funded democracy-building program.
Cuban officials disputed recent comments by Gross's lawyer and wife that his condition is deteriorating, saying his health is in fact "normal" and he is being properly treated.
It said he is well enough, in fact, to serve his sentence in a regular jail, in what appeared to be a thinly veiled warning.
"Even though Mr. Gross could be held at any prison facility due to the fact that his situation is not incompatible with that, he is being held at a military hospital," the statement said. "This is not because his health requires it, but to ensure for him the best conditions."
The statement also implied that Cuba was holding back information that Gross and his supporters would not like to see released, though it was unclear whether it was talking about his medical history or his activities on the island.
"The Government of Cuba regrets the distortions that are being spread on the subject of Mr. Gross' health and respects his right to the privacy of doctor-patient information," the statement read. "Cuba demands that this campaign of fabrications cease. Should it continue, there will be no other alternative than to publish abundant information on the subject."
Gross's attorney, Peter J. Kahn, told The Associated Press earlier this week that his client was having difficulty walking and has developed a mass behind his right shoulder blade. He also accused the Cuban government of withholding the results of medical tests performed last month.
"They still haven't shown up, and we're not getting a straight answer as to why, which causes us even more concern because maybe there is something serious going on here," Kahn said.
After the Cuban communique was released Friday, Kahn issued another statement saying that the Cubans had finally released the medical records.
Kahn's concerns were echoed earlier this week by the State Department, which called for Gross's immediate release.
"We are extremely concerned about Alan Gross' health," said spokeswoman Victoria Nuland, adding that he has degenerative arthritis that has worsened because he is not allowed to walk in his cell. The State Department declined to comment further after Friday's statement was released.
Gross's wife, Judy, has previously said her husband's condition was worsening. Gross, who was overweight at the time of his arrest, has lost more than 100 pounds while in jail. His family says he is also under enormous psychological stress because his elderly mother and adult daughter are both battling cancer.
Gross was arrested at Havana's Jose Marti airport in December 2009 at the end of his fifth visit to Cuba and later convicted of crimes against the state. He says he was only trying to set up Internet connections for the island's small Jewish community.
Cuba has said it is willing to negotiate a humanitarian release, but every time it discusses such a move it brings up the plight of the Cuban Five, intelligence agents who were sentenced to long jail terms in the United States.
One of the men is free on supervised release, but is not allowed to return permanently to Cuba. Washington has ruled out a quid pro quo, and has warned that no progress can be made in bilateral relations until Gross is free. That has left the case, and U.S.-Cuba ties, stalemated.
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