Washington's top diplomat for the Americas had a rare face-to-face meeting with Cuba's foreign minister to discuss the fate of an American jailed in Cuba for nearly 11 months on suspicion of spying, the State Department said Monday.
Assistant Secretary of State Arturo Valenzuela met Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez on Sept. 24 on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York. The meeting is thought to be among the highest-level diplomatic encounters between the two Cold War enemies since President Obama took office in 2008.
"The meeting was to encourage the release of Alan Gross," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said. "Unfortunately, that has not yet happened."
Crowley confirmed the meeting after The Associated Press broke news of the encounter, citing two State Department officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss it.
Gross, a 60-year-old native of Potomac, Maryland, was working for a firm contracted by USAID when he was arrested Dec. 3, 2009, and sent to Cuba's high-security Villa Marista prison. He has not been charged, but senior Cuban leaders including President Raul Castro have accused him of spying.
In a potential sign of progress, Cuba allowed Gross's wife, Judy, to visit him for the first time in August. U.S. diplomats insist Gross was not doing anything wrong, and have said his continued detention makes it difficult to improve relations.
Crowley said Washington continues to work toward Gross's release.
"We would hope that it happened today, but that is up to the Cuban government," he said.
Cuba and the United States have been at odds since shortly after Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution. The U.S. has maintained an economic embargo on the island for 48 years.
A senior State Department official described the meeting between Valenzuela and Rodriguez as brief and "cordial." He said there were no major developments in the case, or significant discussions on other matters.
Relations between Cuba and the United States have improved little in recent years, despite hope by some that Obama's election would open a new chapter. But diplomatic contact between the two sides has increased after being nearly nonexistent under President George W. Bush.
As assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, Valenzuela is the senior U.S. diplomat for the Americas. He is the highest-ranking U.S. diplomat believed to have met with Cuban officials since a March encounter between Rodriguez and Cheryl Mills, the counselor and chief of staff to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Gross' case also came up at Mills' meeting, which took place on the sidelines of a U.N. conference on Haiti.
Craig Kelly, a former deputy assistant secretary of state, came to Cuba in February for immigration talks _ and also raised the Gross case.
Cuba and the United States have also discussed restarting direct mail service.
Associated Press Writer Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.