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U.S. News

Detained contractor still under investigation in Cuba

HAVANA (Reuters) - A U.S. contractor accused by Cuba of distributing illegal communications equipment remains under investigation, and his alleged actions would be considered a “serious crime” anywhere in the world, Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez said on Thursday.

Whether Rodriguez signaled that Cuba will deal harshly with the man identified in media reports as 60-year-old Alan Gross was not clear, but the case has endangered modest efforts by President Barack Obama to improve long-hostile U.S.-Cuba relations.

“In any place in the world, what has been attributed to what you call the American contractor would be a serious crime,” Rodriguez told reporters after a ceremonial event in Havana.

He said Gross has not been officially charged, but continues to be “under investigation.” Cuba has previously accused Gross of working for U.S. “secret services.”

Gross has been detained since early December when Cuba grabbed him on grounds he had given satellite communications gear to government opponents.

His employer, Maryland-based Development Alternatives Inc., has said he was setting up an Internet system for a “non-dissident religious organization” under a U.S.-funded program promoting democracy in Cuba.

Under Cuban law, Gross could face several years in jail if tried and convicted.

The detention has prompted calls in Washington for Obama to take a hard line with the Cuban government and put an end for now to what has been a slight thaw in relations.

Obama has slightly eased the long-standing U.S. trade embargo against Cuba and initiated talks on migration and reinstatement of postal service. But he has said further progress depends on improvement on human rights in Cuba.

In Havana, the government has recently stepped up criticism of Obama and used the contractor case to say he has not changed U.S. policy aimed at subverting the government.

“The government of the United States has not renounced the destruction of the Cuban revolution. It has not renounced trying to change the social and political regime of our country,” Rodriguez said.

U.S. officials in Havana have said little about the case, but were permitted to visit Gross at least once.

It is not known if there are behind-the-scenes negotiations taking place, but Rodriguez repeated what President Raul Castro has said before -- that Cuba is open to exchanging prisoners to gain the release of five Cuban agents jailed in the United States for their roles in the 1996 shootdown of two U.S. private planes piloted by anti-Castro Cuban exiles.

Rodriguez said on Wednesday that Cuba and U.S. officials will meet in February for a second round of talks on migration issues. On Thursday, he said the talks will take place February 19 in Havana.

Editing by Jeff Franks and Philip Barbara

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