WASHINGTON - U.S. officials met Cuban officials recently to discuss the case of Alan Gross, an American aid contractor imprisoned on the communist-ruled island, U.S. Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman said Friday.
But she declined to comment on a U.S. media report which said Washington offered to let a convicted Cuban spy freed last week from a U.S. jail, Rene Gonzalez, return home immediately in exchange for Havana's release of Gross.
The Associated Press report, citing unnamed U.S. officials, said Cuba rebuffed the American offer to lift parole restrictions requiring Gonzalez to remain in the United States for three years. Havana asked that Washington also pardon at least some of the four other Cuban spies who were jailed along with Gonzalez in 2001, according to the report.
"I can confirm that a meeting between U.S. officials and the Cubans did take place as part of our efforts to get Alan Gross home," Sherman told the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, adding the meeting was "quite recent."
"I cannot comment on what was said in that meeting," she said.
Gross was sentenced in Cuba this year to 15 years in prison for crimes against the Cuban state. When arrested in 2009, the contractor was working for a U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) pro-democracy program and was accused by Havana of illegally distributing Internet and satellite communications equipment on the island.
U.S. President Barack Obama's administration, which has eased restrictions on U.S. travel and remittances to the Caribbean island, has said Gross must be released before any further moves to improve U.S.-Cuba ties can go ahead.
The release a week ago of Gonzalez, a Cuban intelligence agent jailed for spying on Cuban exiles, raised some speculation that he could be exchanged for Gross. Gonzalez had served 13 years of his 15-year sentence in the United States.
"We have always said we would use all diplomatic channels to try to get Alan Gross home. We continue to call on the Cuban government to release Mr. Gross on humanitarian grounds, and to allow him to return to his family and bring to an end the long ordeal that began well over a year and a half ago," Sherman told lawmakers.
Gonzalez, 55, was the first to be freed of the so-called "Cuban Five" espionage agents arrested in 1998.
Gonzalez left the jail in Florida but his original sentence included the condition that he spend three years of supervised release in the United States.
Cuba's government and Gonzalez' family and supporters are demanding he be allowed to immediately leave the United States, saying he is at risk from possible reprisals by the Cuban exiles on whom he was convicted of spying.
Representative David Rivera, a Republican from Miami, which has a large Cuban-American population, told Sherman he was angered by the Associated Press report that U.S. officials as well as a former U.S. state governor, Bill Richardson, had discussed with the Cubans a possible swap of Gonzalez for Gross.
It was "outrageous," Rivera said, "that we would be negotiating with a terrorist regime to release an American hostage." Cuba is on the official U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism. (Reporting by Susan Cornwell; Editing by Vicki Allen)
© 2014 Thomson/Reuters. All rights reserved.