Cuba pol cool to talk of release, swap for US man

AP News
Posted: Nov 11, 2011 7:34 PM
Cuba pol cool to talk of release, swap for US man

The president of Cuba's parliament said Friday no one should expect the island to unilaterally free an imprisoned American aid contractor and threw cold water on hopes he could be swapped for five Cuban agents held for more than a decade in the U.S.

Ricardo Alarcon's comments, similar to ones he has expressed in the past, maintained Havana's firm line in a case that has been a thorn in already prickly relations between the Cold War rivals. He spoke in response to comments by a U.S. rabbi who recently visited prisoner Alan Gross at a Cuban military hospital and said the Maryland man hoped for such an exchange.

"They are different situations," Alarcon told journalists at a convention on fighting corruption.

"I read the statement from Rabbi (David) Shneyer ... I think it is a very measured, respectful statement expressing a legitimate humanitarian concern that I understand." But, he said, "I don't think people should expect unilateral gestures."

Gross, 62, has been behind bars for nearly two years since his arrest in early December 2009, accused of illegally bringing communications equipment into Cuba while on a USAID-funded democracy-building program. Cuba's Communist government considers such programs tantamount to efforts at regime change.

In March, Gross was sentenced to 15 years in prison for crimes against the state. He maintains he was trying to help members of Cuba's tiny Jewish community get online.

His imprisonment has put a damper on any likelihood of improved ties between Cuba and the United States, which do not have formal diplomatic relations and are divided by five decades of mutual suspicion and distrust.

Gross' case was raised earlier this week when Roberta S. Jacobson, President Barack Obama's nominee to be assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

"We ... continue to seek the unconditional release of American citizen Alan Gross, a dedicated development worker who has been unjustly imprisoned in Cuba for nearly two years," Jacobson told the committee.

Family members have expressed concern for Gross' health and urged his release on humanitarian grounds, but Alarcon's words suggest that is unlikely to happen anytime soon.

Talk of possibly swapping Gross for one or more of the "Cuban Five" agents imprisoned in the United States has similarly gone nowhere. One of the men, Rene Gonzalez, was paroled last month but ordered to remain in the U.S. while he serves three years of probation.

On Wednesday, the U.S. State Department said officials at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana continue to have regular consular access to Gross and visited him most recently on Nov. 3.

His wife, Judy Gross, has urged Americans to contact members of Congress and write letters to newspapers pressing for her husband's return.


Associated Press writer Peter Orsi contributed to this report.