Havana – The leader of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. said here Tuesday that he hopes to see jailed U.S. aid contractor Alan Gross during his stay in Cuba.
"We'd love to have the chance to see him (Gross)," the Rev. Michael Kinnamon told reporters after meeting with the 119 U.S. students attending the Latin American School of Medicine in Havana.
He said he has already met with the speaker of Cuba's parliament, Ricardo Alarcon, and the Cuban Communist Party's top official for religious matters, Caridad Diego.
Kinnamon has also asked to see President Raul Castro, while developing a program of meetings from now until next Friday with religious leaders, religious communities and government officials on the island.
As for Alan Gross, the clergyman said that he has asked Cuban authorities for permission to visit him and believes his request will be granted.
Gross, now 62, was arrested in Havana on Dec. 3, 2009, in possession of satellite communications equipment he said he was planning to distribute among Cuba's Jewish community.
Havana says he was illegally aiding dissidents and inciting subversion on the Communist-ruled island. In August, Cuba's highest court upheld the 15-year jail sentence imposed on Gross in March.
The Gross matter has become a new source of tension between Cuba and the United States, at odds for more than half a century.
Kinnamon said that the chief purpose of his visit to the island is to help improve relations between Cuba and the United States and not just to concern himself "with one situation in particular."
Asked whether his organization will urge Washington to consider trading five Cuban spies for Gross, Kinnamon refused to make a connection between the two cases.
"The case of the five Cubans is a bigger subject, it's another situation and we are very much involved in that as well. Many U.S. organizations believe that the sentences were very severe and we're not in agreement," he said.
A U.S. rabbi who visited Gross in Havana said earlier this month that the Maryland native wants to be swapped for the Cuban spies.
Gross expressed "anger and frustration" about his situation, Rabbi David Shneyer said in a message to his congregation in Bethesda, Maryland.
"Having learned about the recent swap of (Israeli soldier) Gilad Shalit for more than 1,000 imprisoned Palestinians, (Gross) felt that the U.S. and Cuba could do the same for him and the 'Cuban Five,'" Shneyer said.
The five - Gerardo Hernandez, Rene Gonzalez, Ramon Labañino, Antonio Guerrero and Fernando Gonzalez - were arrested in 1998 and convicted three years later by a federal jury in Miami.
Though one of the group, Rene Gonzalez, completed his custodial sentence in October and was released, he has not been permitted to go home, as the federal courts say he must serve his three-year probation on U.S. soil.
Press accounts said Havana rejected a U.S. proposal to allow Rene Gonzalez to return to Cuba now in exchange for Gross' freedom, countering with a demand for the release of the four spies who remain in prison.
While acknowledging that the five are intelligence agents, Havana insists they were spying on Miami's Cuban exile community, not the U.S. government.
Cuba says the men were sent to Florida in the wake of several terror bombings in Havana allegedly masterminded by anti-Castro militant Luis Posada Carriles, a former CIA operative.