Carter: Not in Cuba to get jailed US contractor

HAVANA (AP) - Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter said Tuesday he discussed the delicate case of an imprisoned American contractor with Cuban officials, but is visiting the communist-run island to improve strained relations with Washington not bring the man home.

Carter later had private talks with President Raul Castro at the Government Palace but there was no immediate word on what they discussed.

The ex-U.S. president said he talked with Cuban officials about Alan Gross, who was arrested in December 2009 while working on a USAID-backed democracy-building project and later sentenced to 15 years in prison for crimes against state security in a case that has blocked improved ties between the former Cold War rivals.

Despite speculation that he would seek Gross' release, Carter said: "I am not here to take him out of the country."

"We are here to visit the Cubans, the heads of government and private citizens. It is a great pleasure for us to return to Havana," Carter said in Spanish during a visit to a senior center, accompanied by his wife, Rosalynn Carter.

"I hope we can contribute to better relations between the two countries."

Already poor relations have been strained by the conviction this month of Gross, who was found guilty of illegally importing telecommunications equipment.

Last Friday's surprise announcement of Carter's three-day visit to the island raised hopes that he could help win Gross' freedom, and both the U.S. government and the contractor's family encouraged the former president to lobby for his release.

Gross has said he was helping improve Internet access for the island's small Jewish community, though Jewish leaders here have denied dealing with him.

Havana considers USAID programs such as the one Gross was working for to be aimed at undermining the government.

Since arriving Monday, Carter has met with government officials and religious leaders. Several dissidents said they had been invited to a meeting with the ex-president Wednesday morning, his last day on the island.

Washington and Havana have not had formal diplomatic relations since the 1960s, and the United States maintains economic and financial sanctions on the island, one of the biggest points of contention for the Cuban government.

Havana also wants the United States to release five Cubans convicted of being unregistered foreign agents and sentenced to lengthy prison sentences.

The "Cuban Five" are considered national heroes by the government, which says they were monitoring militant anti-Castro groups in the United States and posed no threat to U.S. national security.

In previous public comments, Cuban officials have played down the possibility of swapping Gross for the agents.

U.S. officials say no thaw in relations is possible while Gross is in prison.

Carter previously visited Cuba in 2002, becoming the only former U.S. president to do so since the 1959 revolution. On that six-day tour, he met with then-President Fidel Castro and criticized both Washington's economic embargo against the island and the lack of political plurality in Cuba.

During the Carter administration, the two nations enjoyed better-than-usual ties and opened interest sections, which some countries maintain instead of embassies, in their respective capitals.

Florida Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, an outspoken critic of the Castros, said Carter was wrong to meet with Cuban officials and oppose the embargo.

"Instead of supporting the lifting of sanctions against a state sponsor of terrorism, President Carter should demand the Castro regime to allow free and fair elections, freedom of the press, the establishment of political parties and the unconditional release of all political prisoners," Diaz-Balart said in a statement.

At the Government Palace, Castro and Carter exchanged small talk in the presence of the media before withdrawing behind closed doors. They later arrived by motorcade at an upscale restaurant in Old Havana for a late dinner.

Carter told Raul Castro at the palace that in addition to his two trips as a former president, he made a 36-hour visit to Havana back in the 1950s, when the city was famous for its casinos, nightclubs and mafia presence.

"We never went to bed," Carter said. "We had no hotel room."


Associated Press writers Peter Orsi in Havana and Laura Wides-Munoz in Miami contributed to this report.


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