U.S. and Cuban Diplomats Meet to Discuss Jailed American

He has been sitting in a Cuban jail for nearly 11 months, accused by the Cuban government of spying, but now a new sign that American Alan Gross may be a step closer to freedom.

Washington's top diplomat for the Americas had a rare face-to-face meeting with Cuba's foreign minister to discuss his fate, according to a report out of the State Department on Monday.

Assistant Secretary of State Arturo Valenzuela met Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez on Sept. 24 on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York. The meeting is thought to be among the highest-level diplomatic encounters between the two Cold War enemies since President Obama took office in 2008.

"The meeting was to encourage the release of Alan Gross," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said. "Unfortunately, that has not yet happened."

Crowley confirmed the meeting after The Associated Press broke news of the encounter, citing two State Department officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss it.

Gross, a 60-year-old native of Potomac, Maryland, was working for a firm contracted by USAID when he was arrested Dec. 3, 2009, and sent to Cuba's high-security Villa Marista prison. He has not been charged, but senior Cuban leaders, including President Raúl Castro, have even accused him of spying.

In a potential sign of progress, Cuba allowed Gross's wife, Judy, to visit him for the first time in August. U.S. diplomats insist Gross was not doing anything wrong, and have said his continued detention makes it difficult to improve relations.

Crowley said Washington continues to work toward Gross's release.

"We would hope that it happened today, but that is up to the Cuban government," he said.

Cuba and the United States have been at odds since shortly after Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution. The U.S. has maintained an economic embargo on the island for 48 years.

Relations between Cuba and the United States have improved little in recent years, despite hope by some that Obama's election would open a new chapter. But diplomatic contact between the two sides has increased after being nearly nonexistent under President George W. Bush.

A senior State Department official described the meeting between Valenzuela and Rodríguez as brief and "cordial." He said there were no major developments in the case, or significant discussions on other matters.

Cheryl Mills, chief of staff to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, met with Rodríguez in March on the sidelines of a U.N. conference on Haiti to discuss the Gross case. While Mills is close to the secretary of state, her position is not considered to be part of the diplomatic chain of command, making Valenzuela's encounter with the Cuban foreign minister more senior.

As assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Valenzuela is the senior U.S. diplomat for the Americas. Craig Kelly, a former deputy assistant secretary of state, came to Cuba in February for immigration talks — and also raised the Gross case.

The two sides have also discussed restarting direct mail service.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.