HAVANA (CBSMiami/AP) — U.S. lawmakers confirmed Wednesday they visited an American man being held in Cuba for alleged crimes against the state. Allen Gross was arrested by Cuban authorities in 2009. His detention and long sentence in Cuba has hampered efforts to improve ties between the countries. Lawmakers did not give any details on his condition or what was said.
The seven-member delegation led by Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, also met with Cuban leader Raul Castro and other senior officials.
Leahy said Wednesday that the two sides “discussed the continuing obstacles and the need to improve relations,” adding that a rapprochement “is in the interest of both countries.” The meeting was also covered in the Cuban press, with a front-page photo of a smiling Leahy and Castro seated at a small table in front of a thick clutch of palm fronds.
Leahy and Rep. Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat from Gross’ home state of Maryland, met with the 63-year-old on Tuesday, likely at a military hospital where Alan Gross has been held since his arrest in 2009.
Asked at a hotel where the delegation was staying about the meeting with Gross, Leahy said only that they had had a long discussion.
Gross is serving a 15-year-sentence for bringing communications equipment to the island illegally while on a USAID-funded democracy-building program. USAID spends millions of dollars on programs to promote democracy and political change in Cuba.
Leahy did not comment on Gross’s physical condition. Gross has lost more than 100 pounds in prison since his arrest and is suffering from several chronic ailments.
Leahy said upon his arrival in Cuba on Monday that nothing would make him happier than to leave with Gross on the plane, but he also added such a result was highly unlikely. Cuba has been visited by a parade of American officials over the years, including former President Jimmy Carter and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, and all have left empty-handed.
Leahy himself led a similar congressional delegation in 2012, meeting with Gross and Castro as well on that trip.
Cuba has voiced an interest in freeing Gross, but only if Washington agrees to consider releasing five Cuban agents sentenced to long jail terms in the United States.
One of those men completed his sentence last year, but must serve three additional years of probation before he will be allowed to return to Cuba.
The congressional delegation also includes Sens. Jeff Flake, R-Arizona; Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio; Debbie Stabenow, D-Michigan; and Sheldon Whitehouse, D-Rhode Island, along with Democratic Reps. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts and Van Hollen. They are scheduled to travel to Haiti next.
Alan Gross’ wife Judy has filed a $60 million lawsuit against the U.S. government and the Maryland-based government contractor her husband was working for at the time of his arrest.
The State Department has acknowledged that Gross’ work is illegal under Cuban law. The U.S. program was created in 1996 to hasten the fall of the Castro regime.
Judy Gross said her husband should never have been sent to Cuba, and she believes it’s the government’s duty to bring him home.
(TM and © Copyright 2013 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2013 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)