US cleric: American jailed in Cuba in good spirits

AP News
Posted: Nov 30, 2011 8:49 PM
US cleric: American jailed in Cuba in good spirits

A U.S. government subcontractor jailed for nearly two years for bringing restricted communications equipment to Cuba has lost a lot of weight but seems in good humor, a prominent U.S. religious leader said after visiting the prisoner Wednesday.

The Rev. Michael Kinnamon, the general secretary of the National Council of Churches who is leading a 15-person delegation to the island, gave few details of his interview with Alan Gross.

"Two of us went to see him today. ... We had a good conversation, and we're grateful for the government for enabling us to have that visit," Kinnamon told reporters.

Kinnamon echoed reports from previous visitors who said Gross, 62, had dropped more than 100 pounds (45 kilograms) and suffered from other ailments.

"We have concerns for his health, but he's in good spirits," Kinnamon said. He said he hoped Gross may be freed on humanitarian grounds, but had no knowledge of when or whether that may happen.

The religious leader later met with Cuban President Raul Castro. State television broadcast video of their meeting, but gave no details of what was said.

Gross, a native of Maryland, was arrested Dec. 4, 2009, while working as a subcontractor on a democracy-building project funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Cuba considers such programs an affront to its national security, and last March he was sentenced to 15 years under a statute governing crimes against the state.

Gross has said he was working to help the island's small Jewish community improve its Internet access and was not a threat to the Cuban government.

On Monday, his wife, Judy, said Gross had sought reassurance that what he was doing was legal, but was told by his company not to ask Cuban officials.

Kinnamon is the latest in a string of visitors allowed to meet with Gross this year, including former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, a delegation of U.S. women leaders and a Washington-area rabbi.

Judy Gross visited her husband earlier this month for the third time since his arrest, and officials at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana have also had periodic consular access to the man.

Kinnamon said he would meet on Thursday with Interests Section diplomats to report on his group's trip. He said he would also note the National Council of Churches' view that U.S.-Cuban relations should be normalized and lobby for change in U.S. policy toward Cuba.

"It's very clear there are issues we have to discuss between our countries," Kinnamon said. "But the way to address those issues is in the context of mutual respect between nations, and 50 years of animosity and embargo simply must stop."

The New York-based National Council of Churches, an umbrella group of U.S. Protestant and Orthodox Christian denominations, has long been a critic of the U.S. economic and financial embargo against Cuba.

Supporters of the embargo argue that it pressures for democratic opening on the communist-run island by choking off revenue to the government led for decades by Fidel Castro and more recently by his younger brother Raul.

Kinnamon also met Wednesday with relatives of the "Cuban Five," intelligence agents serving sentences in the United States whose return is a top priority for Havana. He expressed concern over their case.