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Carter visits Cuba amid tension over U.S. contractor

By Shasta Darlington, CNN
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Jimmy Carter arrives in Cuba
  • NEW: Carter visits a Jewish center and temple and meets with the archbishop of Havana
  • The trip is officially to strengthen bilateral ties
  • However, there are hopes the ex-president may try to lobby for an American prisoner
  • The U.S. contractor was recently sentenced to 15 years in prison

Havana, Cuba (CNN) -- Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, landed in Havana on Monday for a private visit aimed at reducing tension between the Cold War enemies and seeing first-hand the economic reforms sweeping the communist island.

But expectations are high that Carter also will work behind the scenes to secure the release of American contractor Alan Gross, who was recently sentenced to 15 years in a Cuban prison.

Unlike his first visit in 2002, when then-President Fidel Castro personally greeted Carter on the tarmac, this time Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez was on hand to receive the former American leader.

The Carter Center has called the three-day trip a non-governmental mission at the invitation of the Cuban government. On Monday afternoon, he met with Jewish leaders and the archbishop of Havana, Cardinal Jaime Ortega.

Jimmy Carter headed to Cuba

Carter declined to comment Monday when reporters asked him about Gross, shouting, "There will be a press conference later." A press conference is scheduled for Wednesday.

Cuba accuses the U.S. Agency for International Development subcontractor of "subversive" work connecting people to the internet illegally, with the ultimate goal of undermining the government.

Washington says he was simply helping the Jewish community connect to the worldwide web and has repeatedly said that bilateral relations cannot improve until Gross is released.

Carter visited the Patronato Jewish center and Temple Beth Shalom. When Adela Dworin, the president of the temple, was asked if they discussed Gross, she said: "We didn't talk about politics. We told him about the Jewish community in Cuba, how many members it has, how we openly practice our religion, etc."

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Carter before his departure to discuss the issue, according to Molly Koscina, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Interests Section in Havana.

"We hope President Carter will urge the Cuban government to immediately release Mr. Gross on humanitarian grounds," she told CNN.

On Tuesday, Carter will have a face-to-face session with President Raul Castro.

In many ways, the time is ripe.

Castro has launched a major shakeup of the nation's Soviet-style economic model, paving the way for more small businesses and private enterprise.

And just last week, Cuba released the last of 75 dissidents jailed in a 2003 crackdown on the opposition that prompted worldwide condemnation.

So at least in theory, two of the major obstacles to bilateral negotiations have been lifted.