Alan Gross: Castro's prisoner
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    Jailed U.S. man likely focus of Carter Cuba trip

    Jailed U.S. man likely focus of Carter Cuba trip
    By Jeff Franks – Sun Mar 27, 4:28 pm ET

    (Reuters) – Former President Jimmy Carter will begin a three-day
    visit to Cuba on Monday for what is described as a "private,
    non-governmental mission" where the main topic may be the fate of a U.S.
    aid contractor jailed for setting up service.

    The timing, coming shortly after contractor was sentenced to
    15 years in a Cuban prison, and Carter's past as an unofficial
    diplomatic troubleshooter suggest he will intervene on 's behalf,
    although no one has said so publicly.

    The Carter Center said Cuba invited him down to "learn about new
    economic policies and the upcoming (Communist) Party congress and to
    discuss ways to improve U.S.-Cuba relations."

    Gross is a major stumbling block for the longtime ideological enemies
    because the United States has said relations, which warmed modestly
    before his arrest, are on hold until he is free.

    After arrival with wife Rosalynn, Carter's first public event will be
    with Havana's Jewish community, supposedly the recipient of Gross's help
    in setting up Internet service under a U.S.-funded program outlawed in Cuba.
    [ For complete coverage of politics and policy, go to Yahoo! Politics ]

    Then he will see Cuban Catholic leader Cardinal Jaime Ortega, whose
    talks with President last year resulted in the release of
    most of the island's political prisoners.

    On Tuesday, Carter, 86, will converse with , 79, before a
    Wednesday press conference and his departure.

    Castro is in the midst of preparing for a Communist Party congress in
    April where reforms to Cuba's Soviet-style are expected to be

    Neither Gross nor former leader were on the schedule issued
    by the Cuban government, but Carter seems likely to meet with them and
    perhaps Cuban dissidents as well.

    He has played a mediating role in other international problems,
    including last August when he went to North Korea to secure the release
    of an American imprisoned there.


    There has been no indication he is coming to Cuba at the behest of
    President Barack Obama, so it is not clear what he can offer the Cubans,
    but he is respected by the Castros.

    In a 2002 visit he called for an end to the longstanding U.S. trade
    against the island, but also said Cuba needed democracy and
    better , and gave dissidents a boost by publicly mentioning
    their movement.

    While in the White House, he took steps such as lifting a general ban on
    U.S. travel to Cuba and remains the only U.S. president, in or out of
    office, to visit the island since the 1959 revolution that turned it
    into a communist state.

    What Carter could do, said John McAuliff of the New York-based Fund for
    Reconciliation and Development, is act as an intermediary between the
    U.S. and Cuban governments.

    "Hopefully, Carter can close the gap, not only by facilitating a
    humanitarian resolution of the Alan Gross case, but also by encouraging
    a positive response from Washington," said McAuliff, who advocates
    improved U.S.-Cuba relations.

    Obama has eased U.S. travel restrictions to Cuba and restarted talks on
    migration and postal issues, but McAuliff said more steps, such as
    removing the island from the list of terrorist-sponsoring countries, are

    Gross, 61, was in Cuba working under a U.S. program promoting political
    change on the island, which Cuba views as subversive.

    A Cuban court this month found he committed "acts against the
    independence and territorial integrity of the state" and gave him a
    15-year sentence.

    The U.S. has said he was in Cuba only to provide Internet access to
    Jewish groups and committed no crime. It has demanded his release, which
    many think Cuba is willing to do because it made its point about
    displeasure with the U.S. pro-democracy programs and because of
    humanitarian concerns.

    Gross's 26-year-old daughter and 88-year-old mother have been diagnosed
    with cancer since his arrest in December 2009.

    Wife Judy Gross said on Saturday the family was "desperate for his
    return home."

    (Reporting by Jeff Franks, editing by Anthony Boadle)