HAVANA – A senior U.S. official had a long discussion with Cuban leader Raúl Castro to discuss the fate of jailed American contractor Alan Gross, but told The Associated Press on Friday that Gross was not likely to be released any time soon.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont, said he saw Gross on Thursday afternoon at a Havana military prison. He and Sen. Richard Shelby, a Republican from Alabama, later met for 2 1/2 hours with Castro and offered to take Gross back to the United States on their plane.
"You can imagine how far that went," Leahy said in a phone interview. He added that "we have a long way to go" to win Gross's release.
The Maryland native is serving a 15-year jail term for spiriting satellite and other communications equipment onto the island while on a USAID-funded democracy-building program. Cuba considers the programs an attempt to destabilize the government, and Gross was convicted of crimes against the state, not espionage.
The Gross affair has chilled relations between the U.S. and Cuba and short-circuited any chance of rapprochement since President Barack Obama took office.
Leahy said Castro agreed that Gross "was no spy." Gross spoke virtually no Spanish and traveled to Cuba five times under his own name before his arrest in December 2009.
The talks with Castro and the senators was the first high-level meeting between the Cold War enemies since former President Jimmy Carter dined with Castro during a visit to the island in April 2010. Leahy, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and a senator since 1975, said the late-night meeting with Castro was cordial and open.
The senator said Castro brought up the case of five Cuban agents sentenced to long jail terms in the United States, including one who was released last year but has not been allowed to return to Cuba while he serves out three years probation.
Leahy said Castro never explicitly linked Gross' fate with that of the agents, who were jailed in 1998, but "he made it very clear that while we may be concerned for Mr. Gross and have humanitarian reasons to be, they are very concerned about the five (agents) and have humanitarian and family reasons too."
While the agents' case is largely forgotten in the United States, it remains a cause celebre in Cuba, where the government hails the "Cuban Five" as heroes who were only trying to detect and prevent violent attacks against their country by exile groups.
Cuban officials have stopped short of linking the cases, but have said no one should expect the island to free the 62-year-old American in a "unilateral gesture."
In Washington, State Department spokesman Mark Toner flatly ruled out any prisoner exchange.
"We've bee quite clear on this," he said.
Toner said U.S. diplomats had briefed Leahy ahead of the trip and asked him to press Gross' case, but had not given him any special message to pass along to the Cuban government beyond that.
Gross's legal appeals have been exhausted, but his family has asked Castro to consider a pardon on humanitarian grounds. Gross, who was portly when arrested in December 2009, has lost about 100 pounds and is now rail thin. His elderly mother and adult daughter are both battling cancer.
Leahy said Gross appeared in reasonably good spirits during the visit, but that he also indicated his two years of detention had taken a toll on his health.
"He obviously wants to leave. He feels that his health has been endangered," Leahy said, adding that he snapped several pictures of Gross to bring back to his wife, Judy. Sen. Christopher Coons, a Democrat from Delaware, was present for the Gross meeting.
Cuban state-run media carried images of the meeting between Castro and the senators, though they gave no details of what was discussed. Cuban media said Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez was also present.
The senators are part of an American congressional delegation touring Cuba, Haiti and Colombia.
Based on reporting by The Associated Press.