By Jeff Franks
HAVANA (Reuters) - An increasingly despondent U.S. aid contractor, Alan Gross, finishes his second year behind bars in Cuba on Saturday, with hopes fading he will be freed anytime soon in a case caught up in the tangled web of U.S.-Cuba relations.
His wife, Judy Gross, is stepping up her campaign for his release, after two years of fruitless efforts to convince Havana to let him go and get Washington to do more on his behalf.
Gross, 62, was arrested in Havana on December 3, 2009, for his work in a semi-covert U.S. program promoting political change on the island and sentenced in an April trial to 15 years in prison.
He was convicted of crimes against the Cuban state for bringing in communications equipment and supposedly trying to set up Internet access for Jewish groups.
The case ended a slight improvement in long-hostile U.S.-Cuba relations that was ushered in by President Barack Obama shortly after he took office in January 2009. The White House took the position that as long as Gross was held, there would be no further progress.
Almost everyone close to the case had held out hope Gross might not be jailed long because Cuba knew the damage his detention would do to its relations with the United States and because Washington did not consider the charges against him serious.
But two years on, there are worries he may not get out of prison alive.
"The way I feel right now is that unless something changes, it's very likely Alan will be in jail a long time. My biggest fear is that he'll die before his term is up," Judy Gross told Reuters this week.
She visited her husband recently and found him in bad shape mentally, along with a declining physical condition that has seen him lose 100 pounds (45 kg).
"There was a stark difference between the time I saw him during the trial and this time. He's very depressed, he's very angry and I think the worst part is that he's really losing hope," she said.
He is also concerned for his daughter and mother, both of whom have cancer.
After two years of urging the Cubans to release her husband for humanitarian reasons, Judy Gross is taking her fight to the streets and to the halls of Congress in Washington.
She is tapping into Jewish groups for support and has begun weekly vigils outside the Cuban Interests Section in Washington.
On Thursday, she distributed a video appeal from Gross' mother, 89-year-old Evelyn Gross, for his release.
This week, Senator Benjamin Cardin and Representative Chris Van Hollen sent letters to the Cuban diplomatic post urging that Gross be freed.
Judy Gross said her goal was to raise the visibility of her husband's case and thereby step up pressure for a solution.
"We're going to try now to make Alan a household name," she said. She also would like for Obama to take the initiative for her husband.
"I would like him to pick up the phone and call President Raul Castro and say, 'Let's talk,'" she said. "I don't think anybody can settle anything without talking."
She said she thought it unlikely Obama would do much for her husband now because he faces a tough 2012 re-election battle in which Florida, center of the U.S. Cuban exile community, will be a key state to win.
On Friday, the White House expressed impatience with Cuba, saying it was "past time" for Gross to be released.
"Cuban authorities have failed in their effort to use Mr. Gross as a pawn for their own ends," White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters in response to a question.
The problem with the U.S. position is that it is more about placating the Cuban exiles than about getting Alan Gross out of jail, said John McAuliff, director of the New York-based Fund for Reconciliation and Development.
Anti-Castro Cuban-Americans reject the idea of making concessions to Cuba's communist government on virtually any issue, including the Gross case.
McAuliff said the United States had never fully explained what Gross was doing in Cuba or accepted that his activities broke the law on the island, where U.S. programs like the one he worked for are seen as a violation of sovereignty,
The Cubans have their own complaints with U.S. justice in the case of five Cuban agents who were convicted on spying charges and given long prison sentences in 1998.
They have hinted broadly that they would be open to swap, although U.S. officials question whether they truly are.
The only way to find out is to take Judy Gross' suggestion, McAuliff said.
Rather than talk past each other as they have done for half a century, "the two countries need to hold a serious, official bilateral discussion of how to address the humanitarian concerns of both countries," he said.
(Editing by Peter Cooney)