HAVANA (Reuters) - Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter met with Cuban Jews on Monday at the start of a private three-day visit to the island, but he did not discuss with them a U.S. aid contractor jailed for allegedly providing illegal Internet access to Jewish groups.
Local Jewish leader Adela Dworin told reporters Carter did not talk about contractor Alan Gross or any political topics during a stop at Cuba’s main Jewish headquarters, located in Havana’s Vedado district.
“That was not talked about,” she said when reporters asked about Gross. “In reality, we did not talk about anything political.”
She said Carter asked about religious freedom and was told “that we openly practice our religion.”
Carter, 86, was kept well away from the press, but he shouted that he would speak at a press conference on Wednesday. He later met with Cuban Catholic leader Cardinal Jaime Ortega.
Gross, 61, was given a 15-year prison sentence this month after a Cuban court convicted him of providing illegal Internet access to Cuban groups, including the communist island’s small Jewish community.
His case has worsened relations between Cold War enemies Cuba and the United States, at odds since a 1959 revolution toppled a U.S.-backed dictator and put Fidel Castro in power.
Relations had warmed slightly under U.S. President Barack Obama before Gross’s arrest in December 2009, but the United States said there will be no more progress until Gross is free.
Carter, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002, may try to lay the groundwork for Gross’ release during his visit, but Cuban officials reportedly have told him not to expect to take the American home when he leaves on Wednesday.
The former president and his wife Rosalynn were invited by Cuba’s government, which gave them a low-key welcome on Monday at Havana’s Jose Marti International Airport.
Carter made a previous visit to Cuba in 2002 and remains the only U.S. president, sitting or former, to go to the island since the revolution.
At that time, Fidel Castro was president. Now 84, Castro stepped down three years ago and was succeeded by younger brother Raul, 79.
Carter was to meet with Raul Castro on Tuesday.
The Carter Center in Atlanta said this trip was a “private, nongovernmental mission” for Carter to learn about Cuba’s new economic policies and discuss ways to improve U.S.-Cuba ties.
Since leaving office after his 1977-1981 term, Carter has occasionally served as an unofficial diplomatic trouble-shooter , including a mission last August to North Korea to secure the release of an American imprisoned there.
Gross was working under a U.S. program promoting political change on the island. Cuba says the program is subversive.
The U.S. government has said Gross was in Cuba only to provide Internet access to Jewish groups and committed no crime.
Many think Cuba may be open to freeing Gross soon, partly due to humanitarian concerns. Gross’s 26-year-old daughter and 88-year-old mother are both suffering from cancer.
During his one term in office, Carter took the most significant steps yet to improve U.S.-Cuba relations.
In his 2002 visit, he urged Washington to end its long trade embargo against Cuba. He also called for democracy and better human rights in Cuba and boosted dissidents by publicly mentioning their movement.
The Castros complain regularly that Obama has done little to help relations, despite his stated desire to seek a “new beginning” with Cuba.
Obama has eased U.S. travel restrictions to Cuba, allowed a free flow of remittances to the cash-strapped island and initiated new talks on migration and postal service issues.
Cuba has released most of its political prisoners and is modernizing its economy, but Obama has said it must do more if it wants better relations.
Additional reporting by Nelson Acosta and Marc Frank; Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Deborah Charles