Jimmy Carter Visits Cuba Amid Alan Gross, Arrested Contractor, Dispute
HAVANA -- Former President Jimmy Carter arrived in Cuba on Monday to discuss economic policies and ways to improve Washington-Havana relations, which are even more tense than usual over the imprisonment of a U.S. contractor on the island.
Carter met in the afternoon with leaders of Cuba's Jewish community but did not say whether he brought up the case of Alan Gross, who was arrested in December 2009 while working on a USAID-backed democracy-building project he said was meant to help improve internet access for that community.
Cuba says such USAID programs are aimed at overthrowing the government of President Raul Castro.
Emerging from Havana's Havana's Temple Beth Shalom, in black slacks and a white guayabera shirt, Carter did not take questions from reporters, but said there would be a news conference on Wednesday.
Adela Dworin, president of the temple and Cuba's largest Jewish organization, the Jewish Community House, said the Gross case did not come up during Carter's visit and their conversation focused on the the Jewish community in Cuba.
"We did not talk about politics," Dworin said.
Jewish leaders here have denied dealing with Gross, who was working for Bethesda, Maryland-based Development Alternatives Inc.
He was convicted and sentenced to 15 years in prison earlier this month for crimes against the state for the illegal importation of telecommunications equipment into the country.
Carter was expected to meet with President Raul Castro, other government officials and Roman Catholic Cardinal Jaime Ortega before leaving Wednesday.
Earlier Monday, Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez and the head of the U.S. diplomatic mission in Cuba, Jonathan Farrar, met Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, as they arrived at the capital's airport.
The state-run newspaper Granma noted the visit in a brief front-page article, calling Carter a "distinguished visitor" invited by the Cuban government. The trip is under the auspices of the Carter Center and is not an official U.S. mission.
Still, both the State Department and Gross' family have expressed hope that Carter's trip may help facilitate the contractor's release.
"We have repeatedly urged the government of Cuba to release Mr. Gross and we encourage others who meet with Cuban officials, including President Carter, to also voice their concerns and make this request," State spokesman Mark Toner said last week.
"If he is able to help Alan in any way while he is there, we will be extraordinarily grateful," Gross's wife Judy E. Gross said in statement over the weekend. "Our family is desperate for Alan to return home, after nearly 16 months in prison. We continue to hope and pray that the Cuban authorities will release him immediately on humanitarian grounds."
Cuba calls Gross a mercenary working on a program paid for by Washington that aimed to bring down Cuba's socialist system, and it has presented him as evidence of U.S. intentions to unleash a "cyberwar" to destabilize the island.
U.S. officials say no rapprochement between the Cold War enemies is possible while Gross remains jailed.
Carter's 1977-1981 presidency coincided with the least-chilly period of U.S.-Cuban relations since shortly after Fidel Castro led his rebels to power in 1959.
During the Carter administration the two nations opened interest sections, which some countries maintain instead of embassies, in their respective capitals.
Washington and Havana have not had formal diplomatic relations since the 1960s, and the United States maintains economic and financial sanctions on the island.
Carter visited Cuba in May 2002 on a six-day tour during which he met with then-President Fidel Castro and criticized both Washington's embargo and the lack of political plurality on the island.
Associated Press writer Andrea Rodriguez in Havana contributed to this report.