U.S. church leader meets jailed American, Castro

Reuters News
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Posted: Nov 30, 2011 8:48 PM
U.S. church leader meets jailed American, Castro

By Nelson Acosta

HAVANA (Reuters) - The head of the U.S. Council of Churches met on Wednesday with jailed contractor Alan Gross and Cuban President Raul Castro, in the latest push by a prominent American to obtain Gross's release and improve relations with the communist-run country.

Gross received a 15-year prison sentence in March for crimes against Cuban state security for smuggling illegal satellite communications equipment into Cuba.

He was under contract with a U.S. company involved in a semi-covert democracy-building program, but says the equipment was only destined to connect local Jewish groups to Internet.

"Two of us visited Alan. We had a very good conversation and he was in good spirits," the Rev. Michael Kinnamon, general secretary of the National Council of Churches, told reporters.

Cuban television said Kinnamon met later with Castro and they discussed the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba and the status of five Cuban agents imprisoned in the United States, but there was no mention of Gross.

Kinnamon said on Wednesday that he was worried about the U.S. contractor's health. Gross has lost nearly 100 pounds (45 kg) since being picked up as he prepared to leave Havana on December 3, 2009, and suffers from a number of chronic ailments.

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter visited Gross earlier this year and said he would work for his release.

Gross's arrest poured cold water on a slight warming trend in the always contentious relations between the United States and Cuba during the first year of the Obama administration.

The White House has called for Gross's immediate release and said little progress can be expected toward better ties between Washington and Havana until his return.

The Cuban government has insisted Gross violated the law, but has signaled its willingness to discuss the case with the Obama administration.

Kinnamon, whose organization enjoys good relations with the Cuban government, said upon his arrival earlier this week at the head of a 15-member delegation that they were interested in helping improve U.S.-Cuba relations and that the Gross case was just one of many outstanding issues.

The group also met on Wednesday with relatives of five Cuban agents sentenced to long prison terms by a Miami court more than a decade ago for leading a spy ring in Florida that watched U.S. bases and anti-Castro groups, some of which were plotting to overthrow the Cuban government by violent means.

Gross reportedly has suggested he be exchanged for the five Cuban agents, though both the Cuban and U.S. governments have said they view the two cases as separate.

"The case of the five Cubans is a bigger subject, it's another situation and we are very much involved in that as well. Many U.S. organizations believe that the sentences were very severe and we're not in agreement," Kinnamon said on Monday.

(Reporting and writing by Marc Frank; editing by Anthony Boadle)