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Carter visits jailed American contractor in Cuba

By Shasta Darlington, CNN
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Carter visits jailed American in Cuba
  • Carter visits Alan Gross and urges Cuba to set him free
  • Gross was sentenced by Cuba to 15 years in prison
  • Carter says Gross is "innocent of any serious theat to the Cuban government"
  • Former president also meets with Fidel Castro, whom he calls an "old friend"

Havana, Cuba (CNN) -- Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter visited Wednesday with Alan Gross, an American contractor sentenced to 15 years in a Cuban prison, and urged the government to free him.

"This morning I had a chance to meet with Alan Gross, a man I believe to be innocent of any serious threat to the Cuban government or the Cuban people," Carter said during a news conference in Havana on the last day of his visit to the island. "My hope is that he also might soon be given his own freedom."

A subcontractor for the United States Agency for International Development, Gross was sentenced this month for what Cuba claimed was "subversive" work connecting people to the internet, with the ultimate goal of undermining the government. Washington insists he was helping the Jewish community connect to the internet.

There were expectations before Carter's trip that he might try to secure the release of Gross during his three-day private visit to Cuba, but on Wednesday the former president said he hopes Gross will be declared innocent during an appeal process or given an executive pardon on humanitarian grounds. Gross' family has urged just such a step, because his mother and daughter are battling cancer.

Carter meets with Raul Castro in Cuba
  • Jimmy Carter
  • Cuba
  • Raul Castro
  • Fidel Castro
  • Alan Gross

Carter also visited former Cuban leader Fidel Castro on Wednesday, whom he referred to as an "old friend." During the news conference, he declared that it was time that five Cubans jailed on espionage charges in the United States also be freed.

"I think the holding of the so-called Cuban five is unwarranted," he said, noting that they had already spent 12 years in U.S jails. But he quashed speculation that they could in some way be traded for Gross, saying they were entirely different cases.

"I did not come here with the idea of a swap," he said.

Wednesday morning, Carter invited a number of dissidents, former political prisoners and activists to his hotel for what they described as panel discussions. Dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez was optimistic about the outcome.

"He doesn't have a magic wand to resolve problems that we havenšt been capable of fixing ourselves," she said. "But the fact that they allowed this small bubble of dialogue, I think that is an act in itself."

Carter met with Cuban President Raul Castro on Tuesday night to talk about bilateral relations and Castro's sweeping economic reforms. According to state media, Castro "reiterated Cuba's willingness to talk to the U.S. government about any topic, but on equal terms, without preconditions and in absolute respect for our independence and sovereignty."

Carter said he was eager for relations to improve, and said a series of actions could be taken beyond the release of prisoners on both sides. He urged a lifting of the U.S. trade embargo, but said President Barack Obama could take a number of smaller steps. He mentioned lifting travel restrictions to Cuba for all Americans and restraints on the transfer of humanitarian funds from third countries.

He also said Washington could take Cuba off its list of countries that sponsor terrorism. Carter noted the importance of the economic reforms being introduced in Cuba but said it was his hope that political changes would also come, such as "complete freedom for all Cuban people for speech and for assembly and for travel."

Carter, who was in Cuba on a private three-day visit at the invitation of the Cuban government, left for the airport after the conference. Analysts say Carter may have made progress negotiating for the release of Gross behind the scenes, but that it may take days or even months before the outcome is known.