By Daniel Arkin, Staff Writer, NBC News
Secretary of State John Kerry on Tuesday called on the Vatican to help secure the release of an American contractor who has been jailed in Cuba for nearly five years.
“I raised the issue of Alan Gross and his captivity, and we hope very much that there might be able to be assistance with respect to that issue,” Kerry said.
Gross, 64, was arrested in late 2009, after being accused of smuggling sophisticated satellite and other telecommunications equipment to Cuba’s tiny Jewish community. Gross has said he was only trying to increase internet access in Cuba.
But he was convicted by a Cuban court in March 2011 of crimes “against the independence and territorial integrity of the state” and sentenced to 15 years behind bars. Cuba deems the U.S.-backed technological program subversive.
The arrest hampered a brief and historically unusual period of detente in U.S.-Cuba relations after President Barack Obama took office and promptly eased restrictions on travel and remittances to the island for Cuban-Americans with family in Communist Cuba.
Kerry — the first Catholic U.S. secretary of state in more than three decades — visited the Vatican en route to Kuwait to hold talks with a top aide to Pope Francis: Secretary of State Archbishop Pietro Parolin.
The Vatican has relatively healthy diplomatic ties to Cuba. Pope Francis’ predecessors — Pope Benedict and the late Pope John Paul — both made historic voyages to the country.