By Tom Brown
MIAMI (Reuters) - The wife of Alan Gross, the U.S. contractor jailed in Cuba for crimes against the state, said she hopes President Barack Obama's re-election will soon help lead to her ailing husband's release from the communist-ruled country.
Gross, 63, has been locked up in Cuba since December 2009 for his work on behalf of a semi-covert U.S. program aimed at promoting political change on the island.
He is serving a 15-year sentence for setting up Internet networks in Cuba, work that a judge said was a crime against the Cuban state, and his imprisonment halted efforts by Obama to improve long-hostile relations between the United States and Cuba, which began soon after his first election in 2008.
"The U.S. government sent him there, they sent him on a project, and they need to take responsibility for getting this man home," Judy Gross told Reuters in an interview late on Friday.
Calling her husband a "pawn" in an unfortunate game between two countries just 90 miles apart, she said she believed Obama's re-election could now help his administration push harder for Gross's freedom, even if it means making possible concessions to Cuba that are opposed by conservative Cuban-American lawmakers.
"Nobody has ever come and said 'oh well, we're not doing this because of the election.' But obviously that's what we think was going on, and we'll find out," Judy Gross said.
"It's going to take a few more weeks and we'll be in contact with the administration, and we'll hope for the best," she added.
She did not elaborate on exactly what Washington could do to win Gross's freedom. But she said he has had considerable weight loss since his arrest, as well as having degenerative arthritis and an untreated potentially cancerous mass behind his shoulder. She has been pressing for his release on humanitarian grounds.
"He's a pawn in the sense that Cuba wants something for him and the United States is unwilling to give that up," Gross said in the phone interview.
She spoke as she prepared to travel from Washington to Florida for a rally on Sunday in West Palm Beach to press for her husband's release.
"THEY CAN'T LEAVE HIM"
Cuba has said it proposed talks with the United States about resolving the Gross case but has received no answer. It has hinted that it was prepared to swap Gross for five Cuban government agents who received lengthy U.S. prison sentences in a 2001 trial in Miami.
Washington has insisted that such a deal is out of the question though U.S. officials said last year they had suggested a swap of Gross for one agent, Rene Gonzalez, who is out on parole in Florida.
Judy Gross said there was no question that Havana wants the agents, known as the "Cuban Five," freed in exchange for her husband. Cuba maintains that they were unjustly convicted of espionage and has made their freedom a national cause.
"The fact is, what the Cubans are saying right now is that that's what they want," she said.
She added that she doubted Washington would ever agree to the prisoner exchange. But Obama's election to a new term opened the door to many possibilities.
Some analysts have suggested that a further easing by the president of some restrictive regulations on Cuba could help in Gross's release. But any major changes in the long-standing U.S. trade embargo against the island nation seem unlikely in the next Congress.
Cuban-born Republican Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the powerful chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and a fierce critic of Cuban President Raul Castro, handily won re-election in Florida on November 6.
"The United States needs to sit down with Cuba, even if they're saying 'we only want the Cuban Five,'" Gross said.
"They can't leave him there. They have to keep trying, and we'll keep pushing them," she said.
Gross and her lawyer, Jared Genser, have been demanding that Cuba allow an independent medical expert to examine her husband. Cuban doctors have diagnosed the mass behind his right shoulder as a "hematoma" and told Gross in May that it would disappear in a few months, according to Genser.
"The proper kinds of tests were not taken, so there's no way for sure anybody knows what it is," said Judy Gross, who visited her husband just last month.
"This has been months and months now and it's quite frightening," she said. "We don't know why they haven't responded to our requests to have an independent doctor come in from an independent country. We're quite frustrated with that," she said.
(Reporting by Tom Brown; Editing by Jackie Frank)