By Kevin Gray
MIAMI (Reuters) - An American contractor imprisoned in Cuba praised Raul Castro's economic reforms but called the Cuban government's treatment of him "shameful" on Friday in his first media interview since he was jailed more than two years ago.
In a telephone interview with CNN, Alan Gross also made a new appeal to Cuban authorities to allow him to return to the United States for a brief visit with his gravely ill 90-year-old mother.
Gross, a veteran development worker, was arrested in Havana in December 2009 for his work in a semi-covert U.S. program promoting political change by increasing Internet access in Cuba and later sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Cuba views such programs as part of longstanding U.S. attempts to topple the island's Communist government.
The case has frozen U.S.-Cuba relations, which had warmed slightly under U.S. President Barack Obama before Gross' arrest.
Asked what he might say if allowed to speak directly with the Cuban president, Gross said, "I would say to Raul Castro that I think he's trying to do some very courageous things."
"I think he's a very pragmatic individual who recognizes the need for private sector growth and development," he added.
In March, Gross's lawyer released a letter sent to Cuban authorities in which Gross requested to be allowed to travel and visit with his mother who was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer in both lungs shortly after his arrest.
Gross said he has yet to receive a response from Cuban authorities.
"I think it's shameful - shameful," he said, according to a CNN transcript of the interview. "I'm taking this very personally. I would return to Cuba if they let me visit my mother before she dies."
Gross said he was speaking from what he described as a secured hospital in Havana. He said he shared a room that holds up to three people with bars on the windows and doors.
"We're not allowed to see any other people except the cell mates," he said.
Gross said he is allowed to go outside every day if there is sunshine. "That's been a recent development because I really didn't seen any sunlight for the first year-and-a-half or so," he added.
Gross, who said he turned 63 on Wednesday, said he has lost 100 pounds in prison and complained food he was served after he was first jailed was "infested with insects."
"The food initially wasn't very good, which is probably why I started losing weight rapidly at first," he said. "There really wasn't much variety or quantity, mostly carbohydrates."
Last month, a U.S. judge allowed a Cuban spy on probation in Miami to visit his ailing brother in Cuba for two weeks.
Rene Gonzalez, a dual U.S.-Cuban citizen, is one of the so-called Cuban Five convicted of conspiring to spy on Cuban exile groups and U.S. military activities in Florida.
He served 13 years behind bars and last year was the first of the five men to be released, but he was ordered to remain in the United States on a three-year probation.
"The fact that the United States allowed Rene Gonzalez to travel here to see his brother and the government will not reciprocate, means that on the issue of reciprocation, there's a lot of hypocrisy," Gross said.
(Editing by Doina Chiacu)