HAVANA (CBS4) – Former President Jimmy Carter said Tuesday he has met Cuban officials and discussed the case of a U.S. government contractor who was sentenced to 15 years in prison for crimes against state security, but said he is not in Cuba to bring the man home.
Carter said he talked with Cuban officials about Alan Gross, who was arrested in December 2009 while working on a USAID-backed democracy-building project, but added, “I am not here to take him out of the country.”
“We are here to visit the Cubans, the heads of government and private citizens. It is a great pleasure for us to return to Havana,” the former president said in Spanish during a visit to a senior center, accompanied by his wife, Rosalynn Carter.
“I hope we can contribute to better relations between the two countries.”
Already poor relations have been strained by the conviction of Gross this month.
Washington has encouraged Carter to lobby for the release of Gross, who was convicted of illegally importing telecommunications equipment.
Gross has said he was helping improve Internet access for the island’s small Jewish community, though Jewish leaders here have denied dealing with him.
Havana considers USAID programs such as the one Gross was working for to be aimed at undermining the government.
Carter, who arrived Monday, was scheduled to meet with Cuban leader Raul Castro later Tuesday as part of his three-day trip to explore ways to improve ties soured by a half-century of opposition.
Washington and Havana have not had formal diplomatic relations since the 1960s, and the United States maintains economic and financial sanctions on the island, one of the biggest points of contention for the Cuban government.
Havana also wants the United States to release five Cubans convicted of being unregistered foreign agents and sentenced to lengthy prison sentences.
The “Cuban Five” are considered national heroes by the government, which says they were monitoring anti-Castro groups in the United States and posed no threat to U.S. national security.
In previous public comments, Cuban officials have played down the possibility of swapping Gross for the agents.
U.S. officials say no thaw in relations is possible while Gross is in prison.
Carter previously visited Cuba in 2002, becoming the only former U.S. president to do so since the 1959 revolution. On that six-day tour, he met with then-President Fidel Castro and criticized both Washington’s economic embargo against the island and the lack of political plurality in Cuba.
During the Carter administration, the two nations enjoyed better-than-usual ties and opened interest sections, which some countries maintain instead of embassies, in their respective capitals.
Florida Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, an outspoken critic of the Castros, said Carter was wrong to meet with Cuban officials and oppose the embargo.
“Instead of supporting the lifting of sanctions against a state sponsor of terrorism, President Carter should demand the Castro regime to allow free and fair elections, freedom of the press, the establishment of political parties and the unconditional release of all political prisoners,” Diaz-Balart said in a statement.
Carter is scheduled to leave the island nation on Wednesday.
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