Cleric hopes to meet with jailed US man in Cuba
By ANDREA RODRIGUEZ
HAVANA -- A delegation of U.S. religious leaders visiting Cuba has asked
for access to an American man imprisoned for bringing restricted
communications equipment to the island, a leading clerical official said
The 15-member delegation is still awaiting word on whether they will be
allowed to visit Maryland man Alan Gross, said Michael Kinnamon, general
secretary of the New York-based National Council of Churches, an
umbrella group of U.S. Protestant and Orthodox Christian denominations.
"We're concerned about Mr. Gross and we hope to be able to meet with
him" before the group leaves Friday, Kinnamon said.
Saturday will mark two years since Gross, 62, was arrested in Cuba while
working as a subcontractor on a democracy-building project financed by
the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Earlier this year he was convicted of crimes against the state and
sentenced to 15 years in prison. The government of President Raul Castro
says such projects violate Cuba's national sovereignty and are attempts
at regime change.
Gross, who has said he was setting up Internet for Cuba's small Jewish
community, denies any intention to harm the country and called himself a
"trusting fool" who was "duped," according to court testimony released
by his lawyer.
On Monday his wife, Judy, said Gross had sought reassurance that what he
was doing was legal, but was told by his company not to ask Cuban officials.
Several visiting American dignitaries have been allowed to visit Gross
this year, including former President Jimmy Carter, a delegation of U.S.
women leaders and a Washington-area rabbi. Judy Gross also visited her
husband earlier this month for the third time since his arrest.
She said Gross has lost more than 100 pounds (45 kilos) in custody,
while arthritis now makes it difficult for him to walk.
Speculation that he might be freed on humanitarian grounds has not
turned into anything concrete, and talk of a possible swap for five
Cuban intelligence agents in the United States has so far been just that.
In September, former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson visited Cuba and
told reporters he had been invited to negotiate Gross' release. But
Richardson's efforts collapsed into an exchange of recriminations, with
him calling Gross a "hostage" and Cuban officials accusing him of trying
to blackmail them.
Kinnamon said Tuesday that his group would be very welcoming of a
humanitarian release. As have other Cuban and U.S. officials, he
downplayed the likelihood of a prisoner exchange involving the so-called
Cuban Five, who were convicted of espionage but maintain they were only
monitoring virulently anti-Castro exile groups in Florida.
"We don't see these as situations that we want to link with one
another," Kinnamon said. "That is, the Cuban Five is a major issue in
itself. ... We also are very concerned about that."
The Council has called on the U.S. government to review the men's
lengthy prison sentences, he added.
Kinnamon's delegation also was waiting to hear whether it would be
granted time with President Castro. They did meet with parliament chief
Ricardo Alarcon, Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez and U.S. medical
students on the island.
About 120 Americans are on scholarship at Cuba's Latin American School
of Medical Sciences, which is currently educating some 11,000 low-income
students from 93 nations.
Kinnamon said his organization has opposed the U.S. economic embargo
against Cuba for many years and called for a thaw in relations between
the Cold War foes, which have been even icier after Gross' arrest.
"We want to call attention to the importance of normal relations between
our countries," Kinnamon said, "and we think high-level church leaders
will be one good way to do that."
Kinnamon, who gave a Thanksgiving Day sermon in Matanzas province last
week, recently announced that he would step down as general secretary of
the National Council of Churches but remains in the post during a