HAVANA Cuba said on Wednesday that jailed U.S. contractor Alan Gross is in "normal" health, despite his wife's claims to the contrary, as it reiterated its willingness to talk with the U.S. government about resolving the case.
Gross, arrested in Havana in December 2009 for illegally bringing in Internet equipment and setting up wi-fi networks under a controversial U.S. program, is serving a 15-year sentence handed down in an April 2011 trial. The case halted a brief warming in relations between Washington and Havana.
Wife Judy Gross said in a statement on Tuesday she had just visited her husband and found him to be in deteriorating health.
"I am devastated by his appearance," she said. "While his spirit remains strong, I fear he is not going to survive this terrible ordeal." She said her husband, 63, has lost 105 pounds (48 kg), has degenerative arthritis and a "mass" behind his right shoulder blade.
On Wednesday, Cuba refuted her allegations.
"The state of health of Mr. Gross continues being normal and he regularly does intense physical exercises," Foreign Ministry official Josefina Vidal aaid in a statement.
She said Judy Gross had visited her husband three times at the end of last week for which "the best conditions were created."
Gross was working semi-covertly in Cuba under a U.S. program promoting political change on the island.
The U.S. government has said he was only setting up Internet connections for Cuba's Jewish community, but Cuba viewed his actions as part of the United States' longstanding campaign to topple the island's communist system.
Gross' arrest ended a short-lived thaw in relations between Washington and Havana under President Barack Obama, who had eased the 50-year-long U.S. trade embargo against the island and allowed Cuban Americans to freely travel and send remittances to their homeland.
Cuban officials have previously suggested the two countries could do a prisoner swap - Gross for four Cuban agents jailed in the United States on spying charges.
Tuesday was the 14th anniversary of the arrest and incarceration of the agents, who the Cuban government says have been treated unjustly, and has turned into a national cause.
WASHINGTON REJECTS PRISONER SWAP
There were originally five agents in U.S. jails, but one of them, Rene Gonzalez, completed his 13-year sentence last year and was released on parole. A U.S. judge ruled that he cannot return to Cuba until he has completed his three-year probation.
"Cuba reiterates its disposition to dialogue with the United States government to look for a solution to the case of Mr. Gross and continues waiting for a response," Vidal said.
The United States has rejected the idea of a prisoner swap but did offer last year to send Gonzalez back to Cuba in exchange for Gross, which Cuba rejected.
Gross' lawyer Jared Genser said in a statement Cuba had violated his client's rights to freedom of expression and given him an unfair trial.
He said he had filed a petition to the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention seeking a finding against Cuba.
"Alan's detention is in flagrant violation of international law," he said. "It was clear from the court judgment he did nothing wrong and is merely being punished because of the Cuban government's dislike of the U.S. government."
The U.N. working group has no power to enforce a ruling against Cuba, but its decision could place pressure on the Cuban government. The U.N. petition appeared to signal new, more aggressive tactics by Judy Gross in her long battle to free her husband, a veteran development worker.
Previously, she has taken a more conciliatory approach toward the Cuban government, spoken out about his declining physical condition and asked President Raul Castro to free him on humanitarian grounds.
Both their daughter and Alan Gross' mother are suffering from cancer.
Along with the new legal tack, a new website - www.BringAlanHome.org - has been launched to try to make Gross' plight more widely known.
The change in tactics is not without its dangers.
In June, Judy Gross complained publicly about her husband's condition, which prompted an angry denial from Cuba and a cryptic reminder that Gross could be in prison, instead of the Havana military hospital where he is being held.
(Reporting by Jeff Franks; editing BY Tom Brown and Todd Eastham)