By Jeff Franks
HAVANA (Reuters) - Former President Jimmy Carter said on Tuesday he has spoken with Cuban officials about jailed U.S. contractor Alan Gross, but that he was not in Cuba to seek his release in a case that has stalled improvement in U.S.-Cuba relations.
Carter, who was set to hold talks with Cuban President Raul Castro later in the day, spoke to reporters after touring at an 18th century convent in Old Havana on the second day of a private visit to explore ways to improve U.S. ties with Cuba.
He is on his second trip to the communist-ruled Caribbean island following a groundbreaking 2002 visit.
"We have spoken to some officials about the case of Mr. Gross," Carter said, speaking in Spanish. "I am not here to take him out of the country."
"I hope we will be able to contribute to better relations between the two countries," he said.
Gross, 61, was sentenced this month to 15 years in jail for providing illegal Internet access to groups allegedly including Cuban Jews.
This case has held up progress in relations between the longtime ideological foes, following a brief initial warming under U.S. President Barack Obama.
Gross was working in Cuba under a secretive U.S. program to promote political change on the island. But Cuba views the work as part of longstanding U.S. attempts to undermine its communist-led government installed after a 1959 revolution.
The United States has said Gross was only setting up Internet access for Jewish groups and committed no crimes. It has put a halt to further rapprochement until he is freed.
Carter, 86, is likely to discuss the case further with Castro, when they are set to meet and dine together.
Carter is scheduled to meet with Cuban dissidents, including well-known blogger Yoani Sanchez, on Wednesday.
After he and his wife Rosalynn arrived in Havana on Monday, the former U.S. president met with Jewish leaders and later with Roman Catholic Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the Archbishop of Havana.
Cuban Jewish leader Adela Dworin said on Monday Carter did not raise the Alan Gross case with her in their meeting.
Ortega said in a statement he and Carter had a "cordial and pleasant meeting" on Monday in which the former U.S. president expressed his satisfaction with the Catholic Church's dialogue initiated with Raul Castro last year.
As a result of this dialogue, Ortega pointed out that Castro has freed more than 100 political prisoners. They included 52 jailed in a 2003 crackdown on opposition that damaged Cuba's international relations.
It was not yet known if Carter's trip will include a meeting with former Cuban leader Fidel Castro, who is now 84 and stepped down from the presidency three years ago.
Also not clear is whether he will be able to visit the detained contractor Gross, 61, who has been held in jail since his arrest in Havana in December 2009.
According to wife Judy Gross, her husband has lost 90 pounds (41 kg) in prison and is suffering various ailments.
She has pleaded for his release on humanitarian grounds because, since his arrest, their 26-year-old daughter and his 88-year-old mother have been diagnosed with cancer.
Carter's second visit to Cuba has drawn interest because no other U.S. president, former or sitting, has come to Cuba since the 1959 revolution, even though the two countries are neighbors separated by just 90 miles of water.
(Additional reporting by Rosa Tania Valdes; editing by Pascal Fletcher and Anthony Boadle)