WASHINGTON — An American man whose imprisonment in Cuba has hampered efforts to improve ties between the countries wants to come home, even if it's just for a visit, according to a lawmaker who visited Alan Gross in prison this week.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat from Gross' home state of Maryland, was part of a seven-member delegation led by Sen. Patrick Leahy visiting the island. Van Hollen said he and Leahy met with the 63-year-old Gross on Tuesday for about an hour. Gross was focused on two things, Van Hollen said: returning to the United States temporarily to see his ailing mother and returning permanently.
"It's time to bring him home," Van Hollen said in a telephone interview Thursday. "We assured him we were doing everything in our power to make that happen,"
Gross is serving a 15-year sentence under a statute governing crimes against the state after he was caught bringing sensitive communications equipment to the island. He had been working to set up Internet access as a subcontractor for a democracy-building program funded by the U.S. government and took steps to conceal the Internet sites. Cuba says the programs are an attempt by Washington to undermine its Communist government.
Van Hollen, who was making his first trip to the island, said the group of lawmakers raised Gross' case during an approximately two-hour meeting with Cuban President Raul Castro. Van Hollen declined to talk about what the group discussed but said he thought the meeting was a "frank exchange of views." He said it was "too early to say" whether any progress would be made on Gross' case. Leahy also met separately with Castro.
Cuba has expressed an interest in freeing Gross, but only if Washington considers releasing five Cuban agents sentenced to long jail terms in the United States. In Cuba, Van Hollen said, he and others met for about a half-hour with the wife of one of the "Cuban Five," who were convicted in 2001 of spying on Cuban exiles in South Florida and trying to infiltrate military installations and political campaigns.
But Van Hollen said the meeting shouldn't be taken as a sign that the Gross case could be equated with that of the Cuban Five.
"Our view is we're willing to listen to people and understand their circumstances," Van Hollen said of the meeting.
Van Hollen said Gross has an ongoing issue with a lump on his shoulder and an independent physician should be allowed to examine him. Van Hollen also said Gross showed him new holes he has had to make in his belt since losing about 100 pound in prison.
In addition to Leahy and Van Hollen, Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., and Sens. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz.; Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio; Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., traveled to Cuba.
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