U.S. senators meet Raul Castro on relations, Gross

Reuters News
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Posted: Feb 24, 2012 10:43 AM
U.S. senators meet Raul Castro on relations, Gross

By Marc Frank

HAVANA (Reuters) - Two U.S. senators met with Cuban President Raul Castro on Thursday night in what one characterized as a "wide-ranging discussion" that included the fate of imprisoned American contractor Alan Gross.

Castro rarely meets with U.S. officials, his last encounter being with members of the Congressional Black Caucus in 2009 and later, in 2010, with former President Jimmy Carter.

"We talked about everything from scuba diving to relations, and of course Alan Gross," Vermont Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy said on Friday.

Richard Shelby, a Republican from Alabama, also participated in the meeting, which lasted more than two hours.

The two senators arrived on Wednesday as part of a six-member congressional delegation and were scheduled to leave for Haiti on Friday.

The other members of the delegation, all Democrats, were Senators Christopher Coons of Delaware and Kent Conrad of North Dakota and House of Representatives members Peter Welch of Vermont and Xavier Becerra of California.

They said the trip was for fact-finding purposes and that they had also met with Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez and Parliament President Ricardo Alarcon.

The arrest of Gross in December 2009, for setting up illegal Internet connections as part of a U.S. democracy-building program, has become a major stumbling block to improving relations between the Cold War foes.

Gross, 62, was sentenced to 15 years in prison in 2011 and has exhausted his appeals.

The Gross family wants Castro to pardon him on humanitarian grounds as his mother and adult daughter both have cancer, a call backed by the Obama administration which insists Gross is innocent.

The contractor's fate has become a top issue for all visiting U.S. delegations, some of which have seen him at a Havana military hospital where he is being held.

Leahy said he and Senator Coons met with Gross for an hour on Wednesday and that he appeared in relatively good shape.

But there was no indication that progress has been made in the case.

(Editing by Doina Chiacu)