Alan Gross: Castro's prisoner
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    Carter coming back to Cuba, raising expectations

    Carter coming back to Cuba, raising expectations
    By Shasta Darlington, CNN
    March 27, 2011

    Trip is officially to strengthen bilateral ties
    However, ex-president may try to lobby for American
    U.S. contractor recently sentenced to 15 years

    Havana, Cuba (CNN) — When Jimmy Carter arrived on his last visit to
    Cuba in 2002, himself was on the tarmac to greet the former
    U.S. president.

    He became the only American leader — in or out of office — to visit
    this island since 's 1959 revolution.

    On Monday, Carter will be back on a private mission at the invitation of
    the Cuban government. He will meet with the new president, Raul Castro,
    and other officials to talk about bilateral ties.

    The trip has sparked speculation that Carter could try to secure the
    early release of American contractor , who was recently
    sentenced to 15 years in a Cuban for "subversive" work providing
    internet access to Cuban groups.

    Carter's three-day trip is "to learn about new economic policies and the
    upcoming Party Congress, and to discuss ways to improve U.S.-Cuba
    relations," according to a press release from the Carter Center.

    In some ways, the time is ripe.

    Raul Castro has introduced sweeping changes to the Soviet-style economy,
    laying off state workers and expanding the private sector.

    And just this week, Cuba freed the last of 75 dissidents jailed in a
    2003 crackdown on the opposition that prompted worldwide condemnation.

    Oscar Elias Biscet was one of those recently freed. He was originally
    sentenced to 25 years in prison for counter-revolutionary activities.

    "I want to continue my work in the defense of human rights," he told
    CNN. "We want a democratic and free society."

    Raul Castro agreed to release the prisoners last year as part of a deal
    brokered by the Catholic Church and . Initially, only those who
    agreed to go into exile in Spain were freed.

    But over the last couple of months, dissidents who demanded to stay in
    Cuba were also let go, removing one of the major obstacles to improved
    relations with the .

    But Washington's response has been muted.

    "The release of political prisoners is a step in the right direction,"
    said U.S. State Department Deputy spokesman Mark Toner. "However, human
    rights conditions in Cuba remain poor. The Cuban government continues to
    limit fundamental freedoms, including of speech, the press and
    peaceful assembly."

    U.S. President Barack Obama singled out Cuba for criticism during a
    speech on regional policy in Chile earlier this week. He said it was
    time for Cuba to reciprocate on positive steps he had taken.

    "Cuban authorities must take meaningful actions to respect the basic
    rights of the Cuban people — not because the United States insists on
    it, but because the people of Cuba deserve it," he said.

    Part of the reason for the impasse between the nations is . The
    USAID contractor was in Havana in 2009.

    The United States said he was helping the Jewish community connect to
    the internet, but Cuba says he was part of a broad plot to use illegal
    internet connections to destabilize the government.

    Despite the hefty 15-year-sentence, foreign diplomats in Havana have
    speculated that Gross could be released early as a humanitarian gesture,
    given that his mother and daughter are battling cancer.