Former President Jimmy Carter is on a three-day trip to Cuba where he is expected to meet with the Cuban Jewish community and could broach the issue of U.S. contractor Alan Gross' imprisonment.
Carter was also going to meet with Cuban President Raul Castro and Havana's archbishop, Jaime Ortega, during the trip, which began Monday under the auspices of the Carter Center.
Carter, whose take on Jewish issues spans the 1970s Camp David accords that brought peace between Egypt and Israel to the 2000s claim that Israel was instituting apartheid against Palestinians, is not an official U.S. mission.
But Gross' family said it's hopeful the former president may help the case of the USAID contractor who was arrested in December 2009 and last month convicted and sentenced to 15 years in prison on spying charges.
"If he is able to help Alan in any way while he is there, we will be extraordinarily grateful," Gross's wife Judy E. Gross said in a weekend statement. "Our family is desperate for Alan to return home, after nearly 16 months in prison. We continue to hope and pray that the Cuban authorities will release him immediately on humanitarian grounds."
Gross was detained while working for Bethesda, Md.-based Development Alternatives Inc. on a democracy-building project sponsored by the State Department. Gross has said he was trying to improve Internet access for Cuba's small Jewish community. Jewish leaders here, however, have denied working with him.
Cuba calls Gross a mercenary working on a program paid for by Washington that aimed to bring down Cuba's socialist system, and it has presented him as evidence of U.S. intentions to unleash a "cyberwar" to destabilize the island. Gross was sentenced for crimes against the state for bringing illegal telecommunications equipment into the country.
U.S. officials say no rapprochement between the Cold War enemies is possible while Gross remains jailed.
Though the countries have not had diplomatic ties since the 1960s, Carter is also expected to discuss economic policies and ways to improve Washington-Havana relations during his journey. The United States does provide humanitarian aid to the island nation.
Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez and the head of the U.S. diplomatic mission in Cuba, Jonathan Farrar, met Carter and his wife Rosalyn as they arrived at the capital's airport. Carter, who wore a white guayabera shirt, made no comments to the press.
The state-run newspaper Granma noted the visit on Monday, calling Carter a "distinguished visitor."
This week's trip is the second since May 2002, when Carter met then-President Fidel Castro, who had a chilly relationship with Carter during his one-term presidency. At the time, Carter criticized both Washington's embargo as well as Castro's political oppression of Cuban citizens.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.