A delegation of U.S. lawmakers wrapped up a visit to Cuba Wednesday that included a meeting with President Raúl Castro and an unsuccessful attempt to bring home American contractor Alan Gross, in jail since 2009.
Gross is serving a 15-year-sentence for bringing communications equipment to the island illegally while on a USAID-funded democracy-building program.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, head of the seven-member delegation, said upon his arrival in Cuba on Monday that nothing would make him happier than to leave with Gross on the plane, but he also added such a result was highly unlikely. Cuba has been visited by a parade of American officials over the years, including former President Jimmy Carter and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, and all have left empty-handed.
Leahy said that the two sides "discussed the continuing obstacles and the need to improve relations," adding that a rapprochement "is in the interest of both countries." The meeting was also covered in the Cuban press, with a front-page photo of a smiling Leahy and Castro seated at a small table in front of a thick clutch of palm fronds.
The Vermont Democrat spent his last morning in Cuba strolling around Central Havana, admiring the Capitol building, which is almost an exact replica of the one he works at in Washington. The Cuban version, people in Havana like to point out, is several inches higher.
The lawmaker also saw a historic theater and snapped a photo of his wife standing next to a 1939 Ford Model A convertible with a rumble seat in the back.
"I've been to Cuba several times and I think that we're at a time when I would hope that both our countries would adapt to the 21st century as far as relations," Leahy told The Associated Press.
"I had very good talks with President Castro, (and) with others also, and I'll talk to President Obama when I get back and I will fill him in on those talks. I'll also give him my recommendations."
Asked about Gross' condition, the senator did not give specifics. Gross has lost more than 100 pounds in prison since his arrest and is suffering from several chronic ailments.
"I think Mr. Gross would be a lot better off if he could be home," Leahy said. "I hope that a day will come soon that he can be home."
Leahy and Rep. Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat from Gross' home state of Maryland, met with the 63-year-old on Tuesday, likely at a military hospital where Alan Gross has been held since his arrest in 2009.
Leahy himself led a similar congressional delegation in 2012, meeting with Gross and Castro as well on that trip.
Cuba has voiced an interest in freeing Gross, but only if Washington agrees to consider releasing five Cuban agents sentenced to long jail terms in the United States.
One of those men completed his sentence last year, but must serve three additional years of probation before he will be allowed to return to Cuba.
The congressional delegation also includes Sens. Jeff Flake, R-Arizona; Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio; Debbie Stabenow, D-Michigan; and Sheldon Whitehouse, D-Rhode Island, along with Democratic Reps. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts and Van Hollen. They are scheduled to travel to Haiti next.
Based on reporting by The Associated Press.