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Carter says he is not taking U.S. contractor home from Cuba

By Shasta Darlington, CNN
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Jimmy Carter arrives in Cuba
  • NEW: Former President Jimmy Carter says he has spoken to officials about Alan Gross
  • Gross was recently sentenced to 15 years in prison
  • Carter will meet with prominent blogger Yoani Sanchez on Wednesday
  • The trip is officially to strengthen bilateral ties
  • Jimmy Carter
  • Cuba
  • Alan Gross

Havana, Cuba (CNN) -- Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter squashed speculation on Tuesday that he can secure the release of American contractor Alan Gross during Carter's trip to Cuba.

"We have spoken to some officials about Mr. Gross. But I am not here to take him out of the country," he told journalists, speaking in Spanish, when asked about the case.

Carter was visiting the Belen Convent on the second day of his three-day private visit to talk about Cuba's economic reforms and bilateral relations. He is set to meet with President Raul Castro on Tuesday evening and dissidents on Wednesday morning, and will give a press conference later Wednesday.

Expectations were high that Carter would try to negotiate the release of Gross, who was recently sentenced to 15 years in prison. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton talked to Carter before his departure to encourage him to raise the issue.

Cuba accuses Gross, a USAID subcontractor, of working a "subversive" project to illegally connect people to the internet with the goal of destabilizing the government. Washington maintains Gross was helping the island's small Jewish community communicate.

Analysts say that even if he doesn't fly home with Gross, Carter could pave the way for Gross to be released early on "humanitarian grounds." Gross's family has called for such a release, as Gross' mother and his daughter are battling cancer.

Earlier Tuesday, prominent Cuban blogger and government critic Yoani Sanchez said she and "other members of civil society" will meet with Carter on Wednesday.

Sanchez announced the meeting via Twitter on Tuesday morning: "They just called my house. I will meet with Jimmy Carter tomorrow morning. More later!"

During his 2002 trip to Cuba, Carter also met with dissidents and criticized the country's lack of democracy in a speech carried live on local television.

Sanchez told CNN that a representative of the Carter Center called to invite her to a meeting at 7 a.m. on Wednesday but asked that she not reveal the location.

"Itıs a good gesture," Sanchez said. "And a sign of respect for the plurality of voices, rather than resigning himself to the governmentıs message."

Carter's meeting with Sanchez is likely to ruffle feathers. She has been slammed in state media for alleged links to Washington and accused of trying to rally dissidents against the government via the internet.

On Monday afternoon, Carter met with Jewish leaders and the archbishop of Havana, Cardinal Jaime Ortega. He visited the Patronato Jewish center and Temple Beth Shalom.