By Jeff Franks
HAVANA (Reuters) - Jailed U.S. aid contractor Alan Gross is awaiting a decision on his case by Cuba's highest court and trying to stay strong while his family's situation worsens back home, wife Judy Gross said Thursday.
A U.S. delegation recently visited him and said he appeared to be doing well given the circumstances, but she told Reuters in a statement that the truth is otherwise.
"Alan's health deteriorates daily; he has lost nearly 100 pounds. While he is trying to make the best of a bad situation and put on a brave face, the truth he is suffering tremendously," she said.
Apart from his own incarceration, his wife said Gross is deeply worried about the couple's 26-year-old daughter, who had a double mastectomy due to breast cancer in February, and his 89-year-old mother, who was diagnosed with lung cancer at about the same time.
She did not mention it, but sources close to the family said Judy Gross recently had surgery for an undisclosed ailment.
Gross, 62, has been jailed for 19 months and in March was sentenced to 15 years in prison for bringing Internet communications equipment to Cuba under a secretive U.S. program promoting change on the communist island.
The case has brought U.S.-Cuba relations to a standstill after a brief period of improvement under U.S. President Barack Obama, who eased U.S. travel restrictions to Cuba and allowed a free flow of remittances to the island.
Gross appealed the March conviction and, according to recent statements by the head of Cuba's Supreme Court, the case is being deliberated. It is not clear when a decision will be reached.
Gross and the U.S. government, which says he was only helping Jewish groups and broke no law, are hoping the court will rule in his favor and let him go home.
There have been odd hints that something is in the works, but nothing confirmed or official.
The official Chinese news agency Xinhua quoted Supreme Court head Ruben Remigio Ferro in May as saying, "There is a pending appeal and it is being considered to grant a pardon or release on humanitarian grounds, considering that his daughter and his mother are very sick."
The case, he was quoted as saying, "will be resolved in the shortest time possible."
Last week, a dissident conducting a hunger strike to demand Gross' release told Reuters that, after 79 days without food, he began eating again after government officials assured him Gross would be freed within two months.
The government has said little about Gross, but never misses an opportunity to bring up five Cuban agents who it believes have been unjustly jailed in the United States since 1998 on spying-related convictions.
Although it supposedly has never been discussed, most observers believe Cuba would happily swap Gross for what it calls the Five Heroes.
Short of that, some believe it may be waiting for Obama to take conciliatory steps before releasing Gross.
"I am still persuaded that the key to Alan's release is U.S. acknowledgment that his actions were a crime under Cuban law and that similar efforts funded by (U.S. agencies) will stop," said John McAuliff of the New York-based Fund For Reconciliation and Development, which advocates for better U.S.-Cuba relations.
Other actions such as removing Cuba from the list of terrorism-sponsoring countries and further expanding U.S. travel opportunities to Cuba could also help, he said.
With a difficult reelection campaign already under way, the likelihood of Obama taking actions that could alienate the important Cuban American vote in Florida appears to be small.
Cuban American leaders such as U.S. Senators Bob Menendez, a Democrat, and Marco Rubio, a Republican, have complained that he has been too soft on what they consider a despotic Cuban government.
In the meantime, said Judy Gross, "our family is increasingly devastated by Alan's continued incarceration in Cuba."
She asked Cuban President Raul Castro "to find it in his heart to release my husband on humanitarian grounds."
(Editing by Tom Brown and Eric Walsh)