By Jeff Franks
HAVANA (Reuters) - The United States should end its trade embargo on Cuba to mend ties, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter said on Wednesday, but he also urged Havana to do more, such as freeing jailed U.S. aid contractor Alan Gross.
Speaking on the last day of a three-day visit to the communist-ruled Caribbean island, Carter said Cuba also needed to give more freedom to its own people so that the two Cold War-era foes could put an end to five decades of hostility.
"We should immediately lift the trade embargo the United States has imposed against the people of Cuba," he told a news conference in Havana. "I believe it impedes rather than assists in seeing further reforms made."
"My own hope is that in the future there will be ... complete freedom for all Cuban people, for speech and for assembly, for travel," he said. "There are many things that can be done between our two countries to improve relations."
Carter, 86, came to Cuba on Monday at the invitation of the Cuban government to explore ways to smooth over relations that have gone cold after a brief, initial warming under U.S. President Barack Obama. It was his second diplomatic visit to the island since a groundbreaking trip in 2002.
He met on Tuesday with Cuban President Raul Castro, who repeated his previous offer to meet with the U.S. government and talk over "any topic."
Castro later on Wednesday bid farewell to Carter at Havana airport, telling reporters: "What Carter said to you (at the news conference) I agree with completely."
"The visit was good. Carter is an honest man. I believe it was a good visit as he wanted. Now judge for yourselves," Castro said, adding that Cuba has waited "years and years" for better relations with Washington.
Carter also visited former leader Fidel Castro on Wednesday. Fidel Castro, now 84, who handed over the presidency to his younger brother Raul in 2008, "seems to be in good health," Carter said. "We welcomed each other as old friends."
Carter said he also visited the imprisoned U.S. contractor Gross on Wednesday, whom he described as being in "good spirits" despite having recently been sentenced to 15 years in prison by a Cuban court for "acts against the independence and territorial integrity" of the Cuban state.
CARTER URGES RELEASE OF GROSS AND 'CUBAN FIVE'
"I think he should be released because he is innocent of any serious crime," Carter said. "My hope is that he also might be given his freedom soon."
Gross, 61, was arrested in December 2009 while working in Cuba under a secretive U.S. program to promote political change by providing Internet access to Cubans.
Cuba views Gross' work as part of ongoing U.S. attempts to subvert the government installed after a 1959 revolution.
Washington has said he was only providing Internet to Jewish groups and committed no crime. U.S. officials say there will be no further rapprochement until he is freed.
Carter has acted as a diplomatic trouble-shooter in the past, which raised speculation he had come to Cuba to seek Gross' release, but he said that was not the case.
"Cuban officials made very clear to me before I left my home that the freedom of Alan Gross would not be granted," he said.
Carter also called for the United States to release the "Cuban Five" -- five Cuban agents jailed on U.S. soil since 1998 on charges linked to the 1996 shootdown of a private U.S. plane by the Cuban military.
He said their espionage trial in a politically-charged atmosphere in Miami, home of the fiercely anti-Castro U.S. Cuban exile community, was held under "doubtful circumstances" and they had been behind bars long enough.
"They've now served more than 12 years in prison and I hope in the near future, they'll be released to return home," Carter said.
As he did in 2002, Carter met with some of Cuba's leading dissidents, including recently released political prisoners. They said they talked with him about the situation in Cuba, including their complaints about the lack of democracy and human rights.
"It was a brief, formal, affectionate meeting," said well-known dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez.
Carter heard "the perspective of each one on the reality here," she said.
(Additional reporting by Rosa Tania Valdes and Marc Frank; Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Philip Barbara)