HAVANA – Former President Jimmy Carter left Cuba on Wednesday without gaining the release of a U.S. government contractor jailed the past 16 months, a deflating end to what was otherwise a groundbreaking visit.
Carter spent hours talking about improving ties with brothers Raul and Fidel Castro, describing the latter as an “old friend.” He met with religious leaders and members of the island’s small opposition community, dined out at an atmospheric Old Havana restaurant and even sat down with family members of five Cuban agents serving long prison terms in the U.S.
But when the 86-year-old ex-president flew off in the afternoon without Alan Gross on board, it dashed the hopes of Washington officials and relatives who had hoped Carter would be able to bring the Maryland native home.
Gross, who was working on a USAID-funded democracy-building program when he was arrested in December 2009, is serving a 15-year sentence after being convicted earlier this month of bringing communications equipment into Cuba illegally.
State Department officials have said privately that Cuban authorities indicated they might release Gross on humanitarian grounds following his trial and sentencing earlier this month.
But Carter said that from the very beginning, he knew Gross would not be freed during his visit.
“The Cuban officials made it very clear to me before I left my home that the freedom of Alan Gross would not be granted,” he said.
Carter said that he met with Gross at an undisclosed location Wednesday morning and that the 61-year-old contractor told him he had lost 88 pounds since his arrest. “He still seems to be in good spirits, professing his innocence,” Carter added.
Carter said Gross’ lawyer plans to appeal his conviction, and if that fails, “perhaps in the future an executive order might be issued to grant him a pardon, a release, on humanitarian grounds.” Gross’ 26-year-old daughter and elderly mother are both suffering from cancer.
Carter said he believes Gross is “innocent of any serious crime” and did not pose a serious threat to the Cuban government.
Carter sat down with revolutionary icon Fidel Castro a day after holding talks with President Raul Castro.
“We welcomed each other as old friends,” Carter said of the meeting with the 84-year-old former Cuban leader. He said Castro “seems to be in good health.”