Havana – The general secretary of the U.S. National Council of Churches expressed hope here Friday that the Cuban government will give weight to humanitarian considerations in the case of American aid contractor Alan Gross, who has spent two years in custody on the Communist-ruled island.
The Rev. Michael Kinnamon told a press conference in Havana that the condition of Gross and his family came up when the ecumenical leader and a colleague met earlier this week with Cuban President Raul Castro.
Kinnamon, who arrived in Cuba last week at the head of a delegation of U.S. clergy, visited Gross on Wednesday at a military hospital in the capital.
The NCC general secretary said Friday that in his subsequent discussion with Castro, the Cuban head of state asked about the health of Gross and that of the prisoner's mother and daughter in the United States, both of whom are battling cancer.
There was no discussion about Gross' possible release, Kinnamon said.
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 White House, State Department and members of Congress spoke out Friday to demand that Cuba free the Maryland man, whose ailing 89-year-old mother released a video this week appealing to Castro for her son's release.
Kinnamon said he and Castro also talked about the prospects for a normalization of ties between the United States and Cuba after a half-century of antagonism.
Castro told him "the Cuban government is willing to speak about any issues with the United States, but they need to be spoken about in an atmosphere of mutual respect," Kinnamon said.
The NCC has long advocated for better relations with Cuba and for an end to Washington's 49-year-old economic embargo against the island.
The group, which represents Protestant and Orthodox Christian denominations, also favors a review of the sentences imposed on five Cuban intelligence agents in the United States.
The "Cuban 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.