Cuban officials say an American man held in prison in the communist country for two years conducted "undercover activities" and was part of a program aimed at "disrupting the constitutional order in Cuba."
Saturday marks two years since Alan Gross was arrested in Cuba. The 62-year-old Maryland man has said he was just trying to help members of the island's small Jewish community with Internet access. Earlier this year, however, a Cuban court convicted Gross of crimes against the state and sentenced him to 15 years in prison.
U.S. lawmakers and Gross' wife this week called for his release ahead of Saturday's anniversary. Late Friday, the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, which Cuba maintains instead of an embassy, released a brief statement in response.
The four-point statement refutes the suggestion that Gross is in prison because he was helping the Jewish community with Internet access. All Cuban synagogues had Internet access before Gross arrived, the statement said.
The statement went on to say that Gross was tried because he violated Cuban laws "while implementing a covert program financed by the U.S. government and aimed at disrupting the constitutional order in Cuba."
At the time he was arrested Gross was working as a subcontractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development, a government agency that provides humanitarian assistance but also funds democracy-building programs. The Cuban statement said Gross never told people he contacted in the Communist nation that he was working for a U.S. government program.
The "undercover activities" that Gross conducted in Cuba "constitute crimes in many countries of the world, including in the United States," the statement said without specifying what Gross did.
The statement concludes by saying that the Cuban government has told their U.S. counterparts that Cuba is willing to find a "humanitarian solution" to the Gross case on a "reciprocal basis."
U.S. officials have reportedly offered to let Rene Gonzalez, a convicted Cuban spy who served 13 years in a U.S. prison and is now out on probation, return to the island in exchange for Gross, but Cuban officials reportedly rejected the offer.
Gross' family and U.S. officials have appealed to Cuban officials to free him on humanitarian grounds, noting that he has lost more than 100 pounds (45 kilograms) behind bars and suffers from other ailments. Back home, his mother and daughter are both fighting cancer and his wife, Judy, has had to sell their home.
On the eve of the two-year anniversary of Gross' Dec. 3, 2009 arrest, President Barack Obama's administration offered its sympathies to Gross, his family and friends. The White House said it continues to believe Gross' detention is unjustified and urged Cuba to release him.
"Cuban authorities have failed in their effort to use Mr. Gross as a pawn for their own ends," spokesman Jay Carney said.