HAVANA The United States is cautiously optimistic a U.S. aid contractor held by Cuba on suspicion of spying will be tried and then freed, a U.S. official said on Thursday, raising hopes of an end to a case that has hindered better ties.
Alan Gross, 62, has been detained for 13 months since he was arrested at his Havana hotel. Authorities accuse him of illegally importing satellite communications equipment and of possibly spying.
His detention without formal charges or trial has become a serious bone of contention between the two nations, stalling steps to improve relations by the governments of U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro.
The senior State Department official, who asked not to be identified, said the Cuban government now expected Gross to be charged and tried. The official, who spoke following migration talks on Wednesday in Havana between U.S. and Cuban delegations, did not give a time frame.
"I am cautiously optimistic because of things we hear that that would be the case," the official said when asked if Gross would be released and sent home after being tried, adding that Cuban officials had made "encouraging noises."
The White House pressed again for Gross' release.
"We reiterate our call for the immediate release of Alan Gross, who should be allowed to return home to his wife and family," White House spokesman Mike Hammer said. "U.S. government officials have repeatedly raised our deep concern regarding Mr. Gross with Cuban authorities and have urged all those who interact with the Cuban government to do the same."
Roberta Jacobson, the second most senior U.S. diplomat for Latin America, visited Gross in jail on Thursday during her trip to Cuba for the migration talks. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said the United States appreciated that she had been able to make the visit. She also met with dissidents, Jewish groups and Catholic Church officials.
U.S. Democratic Senator Carl Levin also visited Gross during a five-day trip to Cuba and urged Cuban officials to reach a prompt and positive resolution to his situation, a spokeswoman said.
STUMBLING BLOCK, HEALTH PROBLEMS
Gross' detention is among the most serious stumbling blocks to better ties with communist-led Cuba, the U.S. official said.
A Western diplomat in Havana said on Thursday Gross would likely plead guilty at a trial in the next few weeks and then be sent back to the United States.
But Cuba called Jacobson's meeting with opposition leaders an "open provocation" and evidence Washington still aimed to subvert the revolutionary government that took power in 1959.
"Before the migration talks, the Foreign Ministry made clear to the U.S. officials its rejection of any attempt to use the official visit to Cuba to carry out disrespectful or offensive activities against our country," the ministry said in a statement.
Gross, who is being held in a cell at a military hospital, is said to have lost 90 pounds (41 kg) in jail and suffers from health problems. His daughter, in her 20s, was diagnosed with breast cancer after he was detained in December 2009. Gross' wife wrote last year to Raul Castro expressing her and her husband's remorse for his work in Cuba.
Gross' trip to Cuba was funded by a U.S. program promoting political change on the island. Washington says he was helping Cuba's Jewish community access the Internet. Cuba says he broke the law and may have been spying during several trips.
It is believed Cuba would like to trade him for five Cuban agents imprisoned in the United States for spying. Cuba has not confirmed that. The U.S. official said no specific demands had been made but that Cuba wanted an end to aid programs aimed at political change and also raised the issue of the five agents.
The United States has said it wants Gross freed without conditions on humanitarian grounds and will undertake no new efforts to improve relations until he is released
Before Gross' arrest, relations had warmed slightly as Obama eased the 48-year-old U.S. trade embargo against Cuba and the countries began talks on migration and postal services.
(Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell and Jeff Mason in Washington; Writing by Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Peter Cooney)