HAVANA — U.S. lawmakers confirmed on Wednesday that they visited an American man whose detention and long sentence in Cuba has hampered efforts to improve ties between the countries, but they gave no details on his condition or what was said.
The seven-member delegation, led by Sen. Patrick Leahy and including U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat from Alan Gross’ home state of Maryland, also met with Cuban President Raul Castro and other senior officials.
Leahy said that the two sides “discussed the continuing obstacles and the need to improve relations,” adding that a rapprochement “is in the interest of both countries.” The meeting was also covered in the Cuban press, with a front-page photo of a smiling Leahy and Castro seated at a small table in front of a thick clutch of palm fronds.
Two diplomatic sources on the island said the meeting with Castro went on for about three hours, and that the American lawmakers said the Cuban leader made a concerted effort to speak individually to each of them. The diplomats spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the visit publically. U.S. officials could not immediately be reached for comment.
Leahy spent his last morning in Cuba strolling around Central Havana, admiring the Capitol building, which is almost an exact replica of the one he works at in Washington. The Cuban version, people in Havana like to point out, is several inches higher.
The Vermont Democrat also saw a historic theater and snapped a photo of his wife standing next to a 1939 Ford Model A convertible with a rumble seat in the back.
“I’ve been to Cuba several times and I think that we’re at a time when I would hope that both our countries would adapt to the 21st century as far as relations,” Leahy told The Associated Press.
“I had very good talks with President Castro, (and) with others also, and I’ll talk to President Obama when I get back and I will fill him in on those talks. I’ll also give him my recommendations.”
The congressional delegation also includes Sens. Jeff Flake, R-Arizona; Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio; Debbie Stabenow, D-Michigan, and Sheldon Whitehouse, D-Rhode Island, and Democratic Rep. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts. They were scheduled to travel to Haiti next.
Asked about Gross’ condition, Leahy did not give specifics. Gross has lost more than 100 pounds in prison since his arrest and is suffering from several chronic ailments.
“I think Mr. Gross would be a lot better off if he could be home,” Leahy said. “I hope that a day will come soon that he can be home.”
Leahy and Van Hollen met with the 63-year-old on Tuesday, likely at a military hospital where Gross has been held since his arrest in 2009.
Gross is serving a 15-year-sentence for bringing communications equipment to the island illegally while on a USAID-funded democracy-building program.
Leahy said upon his arrival in Cuba on Monday that nothing would make him happier than to leave with Gross on the plane, but he also added such a result was highly unlikely. Cuba has been visited by a parade of American officials over the years, including former President Jimmy Carter and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, and all have left empty-handed.
Leahy himself led a similar congressional delegation in 2012, meeting with Gross and Castro as well on that trip.
Cuba has voiced an interest in freeing Gross, but only if Washington agrees to consider releasing five Cuban agents sentenced to long jail terms in the United States.
One of them completed his sentence last year, but must serve three additional years of probation before he will be allowed to return to Cuba. The diplomatic sources told AP the congressional delegation also quietly met with some of the wives and other family members of the five Cuban agents while in Havana, though it is not clear what was said.