By Juan O. Tamayo
MIAMI — Two U.S. senators who have long pushed to ease restrictions on trade with Cuba say they have put their advocacy on hold in hopes of pressuring Havana to free jailed U.S. government subcontractor Alan Gross.
The decisions by Sens. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, and Richard J. Durbin D-Ill., underlined how the case of Gross, serving a 15-year prison sentence, has become a persistent roadblock in almost any attempt to improve U.S.-Cuba relations.
“I have tried to change the trading relationship with Cuba. I am taking a hiatus from that effort,” Moran told The Hill newspaper. “I hope that this will put pressure on Cuba to release him.”
Durbin, who as the Senate majority whip is the second-highest ranking Democrat in the chamber, said his meeting with Gross in his Havana cell this spring convinced him that more needs to be done to free him, according to The Hill report Sunday. Durbin has advocated using trade to open up closed societies like Cuba’s, and, with Moran, has submitted several legislative proposals over the years to ease the U.S. trade embargo on the island. Calls to Moran and Durbin’s offices on Monday seeking additional comment were not returned.
Gross, 63, a development specialist working for a U.S. government pro-democracy program, is serving a sentence for acting against Cuba’s sovereignty when he delivered three illegal satellite phones to Cuban Jews that allowed them independent access to the Internet, bypassing government controls. The Obama administration has demanded his release as a humanitarian gesture, arguing that he is in poor health, his mother has inoperable cancer and one of his daughters is undergoing treatment for breast cancer.
Havana has made it clear that Gross would be freed only in exchange for the five Cuban intelligence officials convicted in Miami in 1998. Four are serving long sentences and the fifth completed his prison term but is on parole somewhere in the United States. The White House has repeatedly said it would not swap Gross for the Cuban spies, and that it can make no major effort to improve bilateral relations until the Maryland man is released.
Moran and Durbin, both from farm states, have been trying for years to ease U.S. trade sanctions on Cuba to make it easier for the island to buy U.S. food and other agricultural goods – which totaled $347 million in 2011. Moran has proposed allowing Cuba to make payments directly to U.S. financial institutions, which now must go through third countries. He also wants Cuba, now required to pay for the goods before they leave the United States, to be able to pay once they reach the island. The proposals have been rejected in Congress, with Cuban-American members and other opponents arguing that easing the U.S. trade restrictions would help the half-century old communist government.
Gross’ health reportedly is deteriorating. He has lost more than 100 pounds since his arrest in late 2009 and has been serving his sentence in a military hospital in Havana. His U.S. lawyer, Peter Kahn, complained last week that Cuba had not given Gross’ family the results of his latest medical tests. The U.S. State Department said Thursday it was “extremely concerned” by reports that Gross could no longer walk around his cell. Cuba’s Foreign Ministry reported Friday that Gross’ health was “normal,” although he suffered from “chronic conditions typical of someone his age.” And over the weekend it sent the medical test results to his family.