Two U.S. senators met with Cuban President Raul Castro in what one characterized as a "wide-ranging discussion" that included the fate of imprisoned American contractor Alan Gross.
Castro rarely meets with U.S. officials. His last such encounters were with members of the Congressional Black Caucus in 2009 and in 2010 with former President Jimmy Carter.
"We talked about everything from scuba diving to relations, and of course Alan Gross," Vermont Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy said on Friday.
Richard Shelby, a Republican from Alabama, also participated in the Thursday night meeting, which lasted more than two hours.
The meeting took place as the Cuban diplomatic mission in Washington announced plans to host what it called the "1st National Encounter" with Cubans living in the United States. The meeting will bring together Cuban-Americans "who have respectful links to their country," in order to discuss "the normalization of relations" between Cuba and the exile community in the United States, the statement said.
Shelby and Leahy arrived in Cuba on Wednesday as part of a six-member congressional delegation and were scheduled to leave for Haiti on Friday.
The other members of the delegation, all Democrats, were Senators Christopher Coons of Delaware and Kent Conrad of North Dakota and House of Representatives members Peter Welch of Vermont and Xavier Becerra of California.
They said the trip was for fact-finding purposes and that they also met with Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez and Parliament President Ricardo Alarcon.
Gross was arrested in December 2009 for setting up illegal Internet connections as part of a U.S. democracy-building program. His case has become a major stumbling block to improving relations between the Cold War foes.
There was no indication that progress has been made in the case.
Gross, 62, was sentenced to 15 years in prison in 2011 and has exhausted his appeals.
The Gross family wants Castro to pardon him on humanitarian grounds because his mother and adult daughter both have cancer, a call backed by the Obama administration, which insists Gross is innocent.
The contractor's fate has become a top issue for all visiting U.S. delegations, some of which have seen him at a Havana military hospital where he is being held.
Leahy said he and Coons met with Gross for an hour on Wednesday and that he appeared in relatively good shape. (Editing by Doina Chiacu and Bill Trott)
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