HAVANA – The Rev. Jesse Jackson appealed to Cuba on Tuesday to release an American contractor facing a possible 20-year sentence on charges of trying to undermine the government, saying granting him freedom on humanitarian grounds could open the door for better relations.
Jackson offered to come to Cuba to mediate the release of Alan Gross, a 61-year-old Maryland native held here since December 2009. Gross, who was working for USAID when he was arrested, is set to go on trial Friday on charges of "acts against the integrity and independence" of Cuba.
"I am not making a legal case. I am making a humanitarian plea, a moral appeal," Jackson said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. "I hope that Raul (Castro) and the governing officials see the advantage of letting him go. Every time a prisoner is let go, it opens the door for increased dialogue and possibilities."
Jackson, a civil rights leader and former Democratic presidential candidate, made clear he was speaking as a private citizen and not on behalf of the Obama Administration.
Jackson has been to Cuba several times and met with both Fidel and Raul Castro. In 1984 he helped negotiate the release of 26 Cuban prisoners, most of whom left the island. He has made similar trips to Yugoslavia, Syria and Iraq to help gain freedom for detained Americans.
Jackson, 69, said he was available to reprise that role in Cuba and added that he would like to come to Havana in any case to meet with Gross once the trial is over.
Jackson, a longtime critic of Washington's 48-year trade embargo against Cuba, said it is time for a new U.S. policy toward the island, which has been ruled since 1959 by the Castro brothers.
"Cuba is not a threat to our national security," he said. "We should be in meaningful dialogue with Cuba."
He noted that President Barack Obama recently held a state dinner for visiting Chinese President Hu Jintao despite criticisms of that country's human rights record, adding that U.S. policy toward Cuba "should not remain static 50 years later."
Gross's family and the U.S. government say he was in Cuba handing out communications equipment to the island's small Jewish community, though Jewish leaders in Cuba have said they had nothing to do with him.
The project he was working on was part of a $40 million-a-year USAID program to promote democracy and political change on the island.
U.S. officials have defended the program and said they will never stop supporting democracy and openness in Cuba. Opponents of the project have criticized it as ineffective and counterproductive.
American officials have made clear that relations between Cuba and the United States cannot meaningfully improve while Gross is being held.
Cuban prosecutors announced in February that they would seek a long jail term for Gross, a shock to those who thought the situation was close to being resolved. Only weeks earlier, a senior State Department official was allowed to meet with Gross in custody. U.S. officials said at the time they were optimistic he would be released.
Gross's wife, Judy, has also appealed for her husband to be freed, saying he meant no harm. The couple's 26-year-old daughter has cancer and is recovering from a double mastectomy, and Gross's elderly mother is also sick.
"I am increasingly worried about Alan's ability to sustain all the emotional pain and stress he is under considering the most recent bad news from the home front," she said in written response to questions sent by the AP last week. "I beg the Cuban government to let Alan come home on humanitarian grounds."