HAVANA — Cuban President Raul Castro expressed humanitarian concern over difficulties facing the family of an American imprisoned on the island as an accused spy, a prominent U.S. religious leader who met with both men this week said on Friday.
National Council of Churches General Secretary Michael Kinnamon told a news conference that the case of Alan Gross, a U.S. government subcontractor who has spent two years in custody for importing restricted communications equipment, came up during his meeting Wednesday with Castro.
But Kinnamon said he had no indication of any progress toward resolving the case, which Washington officials have said is a deal-breaker for any improvement in ties. Nor has there been any movement on disputes important to the Cuban government such as a review of the sentences for the "Cuban Five" intelligence agents held in the United States.
Castro "understands the health issues especially with regards to (Gross') family, and he expressed concern for those also," Kinnamon said. "We did not talk about anything regarding release."
Gross' family and U.S. officials have appealed to Cuban officials to free him on humanitarian grounds, noting that he has lost more than 100 pounds (45 kilograms) behind bars and suffers from other ailments. Back home, his mother and daughter are both fighting cancer and his wife, Judy, has had to sell their home.
On the eve of the two-year anniversary of Gross' Dec. 3, 2009 arrest, President Barack Obama's administration offered its sympathies to Gross, his family and friends. The White House said it continues to believe Gross' detention is unjustified and urged Cuba to release him.
"Cuban authorities have failed in their effort to use Mr. Gross as a pawn for their own ends," spokesman Jay Carney said.
Gross was working as a subcontractor on a U.S. government-funded democracy-building program when he was detained. He says he was only trying to help Cuba's small Jewish community improve their Internet access.
Havana considers such programs to be a violation of its sovereignty, and attempts to undermine its government. Rather than charging Gross with contraband, he was convicted and sentenced to 15 years in March under a far more serious statute covering crimes against the state.
Kinnamon has led a delegation of 15 National Council representatives on a 10-day tour of the island, meeting with religious leaders, and high-level government officials and diplomats at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana. He and another member also had a jailhouse interview with Gross for about 45 minutes to an hour on Wednesday.
"We talked about his sense of ... being unjustly accused, his concern for members of his family who are now quite ill," Kinnamon said Friday.
"This is of real concern to us, and we expressed to him our sympathy for that and our desire to address all of the obstacles which prevent normal relations."
The New York-based National Council of Churches, a multi-denominational group representing some 50 million parishioners, has opposed the U.S. economic embargo on the island since 1968 and lobbies for normalization of U.S.-Cuban relations.
Kinnamon said he would continue to push for a review of the criminal sentences against the Cuban Five, whose return is a top priority for Havana, in meetings with U.S. officials after the delegation returns home.
He also said that in his meeting with Castro, the Cuban president reiterated previous statements that Havana is open to dialogue with Washington despite decades of mistrust and recriminations.
"What he stressed to us was that everything is on the table," Kinnamon said. "As far as he's concerned, the Cuban government is willing to speak about any issues with the United States but they need to be spoken about in an atmosphere of mutual respect."
On Capitol Hill, 92 lawmakers appealed for Gross' release in a letter Thursday to the head of the Cuban Interests Section in Washington.
"Mr. Gross's continued incarceration is viewed by Members of Congress, regardless of their political views on Cuba, as a major setback in bilateral relations. It is unlikely that any further positive steps can or will be taken as long as Mr. Gross remains in a Cuban jail," it read.
"We urge your government in the strongest possible terms to immediately and unconditionally release Mr. Gross, so that we can resume a more positive path to the benefit of American and Cuban people alike."