HAVANA (AP) — U.S. lawmakers met Tuesday with Cuba's foreign minister and have been told they will be allowed access to an American imprisoned in Havana, with the State Department saying they will push for his release.
The delegation, led by Sen. Patrick Leahy, was also hoping to meet with Cuban President Raul Castro before it departs Wednesday.
The detention of Maryland-native Alan Gross has become the chief impediment to improved relations between Washington and Havana. The 63-year-old was arrested in 2009, when he was caught bringing sensitive communications equipment into Cuba during a USAID democracy-building program. He was sentenced to 15 years.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the lawmakers, including five senators and two representatives, will meet Gross and seek his immediate release.
The State Department will "look forward to the results of their diplomacy on his behalf and, more broadly, with regard to all of our concerns about Cuba, human rights and other things," she said.
Leahy has said he would be thrilled to bring Gross home with him, but added that it was extremely unlikely to happen. The Vermont Democrat led a similar trip a year ago, meeting with both Gross and Castro.
He said Monday that this trip seeks principally to build on the understandings made then and work toward improving relations between countries that have been enemies since before man set foot on the moon.
Leahy and other members of the delegation were seen entering an upscale restaurant in Old Havana along with Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez at midday. They also dined with Parliament Chief Ricardo Alarcon on Monday and toured Ernest Hemingway's former villa.
The delegation also includes Sens. Jeff Flake, R-Arizona; Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio; Debbie Stabenow, D-Michigan; and Sheldon Whitehouse, D-Rhode Island, along with Democratic Reps. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts and Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, Gross's home state.
It was the largest group of senators to visit the island in memory, a sign of growing interest on Capitol Hill.
Cuba has expressed a desire to exchange Gross for at least some of the five Cuban intelligence agents who have been sentenced to long jail terms in the United States.
Washington has said publicly that a swap is not in the cards, but there are other points of contention that might be easier to move on, including possibly removing Cuba from a list of state sponsors of terror.
The island made the list in large part because it supposedly harbored members of the Basque militant group ETA and Colombia's FARC rebels. But ETA announced a permanent cease fire in 2011, and Cuba is currently playing host to peace talks between Colombia and the FARC.
Cuban diplomats point out that even North Korea, which earned global condemnation when it held an underground nuclear test earlier this month, is not on the terror sponsor list.
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