By Jeff Franks
HAVANA (Reuters) - Former President Jimmy Carter said on Tuesday he hoped to contribute to better U.S.-Cuba relations, but was not in Cuba seeking the release of a U.S. aid contractor whose imprisonment has blocked better ties between the Cold War-era enemies.
On a visit to Havana, Carter told reporters he had spoken to Cuban officials about Alan Gross, who is serving a 15-year sentence for trying to provide illegal Internet access to Cuban groups. But he said, speaking in Spanish, "I am not here to take him out of the country."
"I hope we will be able to contribute to better relations between the two countries," he said.
Carter, 86, is on his second diplomatic trip to the communist-ruled island following a groundbreaking 2002 visit.
He met with President Raul Castro on Tuesday, the second day of a private, three-day visit made at Cuba's invitation, but it was not yet known what they discussed. They were scheduled to dine together in Old Havana.
Video from a media pool showed them, both in coat and tie, shaking hands, then sitting down to talk, along with Carter's wife, Rosalynn, and Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez.
As they chatted in English and Spanish before the cameras were ushered out, Carter told Castro he and his wife came to Cuba in the 1950s for 36 hours.
"We never went to bed, we had no hotel room," he said.
This trip has raised speculation he would at least try to lay the groundwork for Gross' release because he has acted as an unofficial diplomatic trouble-shooter in the past. In August he secured the release of an American jailed in North Korea.
Gross, 61, was arrested in December 2009 while working in Cuba under a secretive U.S. program to promote political change on the island.
But Cuba views the work as part of longstanding U.S. attempts to undermine its government installed after a 1959 revolution.
The arrest of Gross halted a brief initial warming in relations between the longtime ideological foes under U.S. President Barack Obama.
A Cuban court sentenced him to 15 years following a two-day trial this month.
The United States says Gross was only setting up Internet access for Jewish groups and committed no crimes. It has said there will be no further rapprochement until he is freed.
MEETING WITH DISSIDENTS
Carter's second visit to Cuba has drawn interest because no other U.S. president, former or sitting, has come to Cuba since the revolution, even though the two countries are neighbors separated by just 90 miles of water.
In 2002 he met with dissidents and he will do so again on Wednesday ahead of a press conference and his departure from Cuba.
One of those scheduled to talk with Carter is well-known dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez, who told Reuters it was "very, very, very respectful" that "he is inviting the great plurality and diversity of voices that there are in the country."
The Cuban government considers dissidents to be traitors in the pay of the United States.
A pro-government website had a story on the planned meeting with the headline "Jimmy Carter will meet with Cuban mercenaries."
Carter met on Monday with Jewish leaders and with Roman Catholic Cardinal Jaime Ortega, archbishop of Havana.
It was not yet known if Carter will meet with Fidel Castro, who is 84 and stepped down from the presidency in 2008. Also unclear is whether he would be able to visit Gross.
(Additional reporting by Rosa Tania Valdes and Nelson Acosta; Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Xavier Briand)