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After Bergdahl, will U.S. and Cuba make swap involving Alan Gross?

From Isabel C. Morales, CNN
updated 9:21 PM EDT, Tue June 10, 2014
Freelance American journalist <strong>Steven Sotloff</strong>, seen here in a photo from Facebook, disappeared during a reporting trip to Syria in August 2013. His family <a href='http://www.cnn.com/2014/08/21/us/iraq-steven-sotloff/index.html'>kept the news a secret</a> until he was seen at the end of a video from the Islamic extremist group ISIS that shows the beheading of another journalist, James Foley. Freelance American journalist Steven Sotloff, seen here in a photo from Facebook, disappeared during a reporting trip to Syria in August 2013. His family kept the news a secret until he was seen at the end of a video from the Islamic extremist group ISIS that shows the beheading of another journalist, James Foley.
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Cubans say the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl shows a prisoner swap is possible
  • They say former USAID contractor Alan Gross could be next
  • Cuban authorities want the U.S. to swap Gross for three imprisoned Cuban spies

Washington (CNN) -- Could former U.S. State Department contractor Alan Gross be part of a new prisoner swap?

Two Cubans convicted of spying in the United States are pushing for the deal. They argue that U.S. President Barack Obama could follow the release of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl with a similar exchange, swapping three of their imprisoned colleagues in exchange for Gross.

"The only thing missing is political will," Fernando Gonzalez told reporters Tuesday, speaking from Havana in a teleconference broadcast at the Cuban Interests Section in Washington. "I cannot think of a reason for him not to do something similar to what he did (with Bergdahl)."

Gross, 65, is serving a 15-year sentence for bringing satellite communications equipment to Cuba as part of his work as a subcontractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development. He was convicted in March 2011.

Gonzalez is one of the "Cuban Five," a group of Cuban agents who were arrested in South Florida in 1998 and convicted of espionage in 2001.

Two of them -- Fernando Gonzalez and Rene Gonzalez -- were released from prison and have returned to Cuba. Gerardo Hernández, Ramón Labañino and Antonio Guerrero remain in prison in the United States.

Since their conviction, the agents have been the focus of an international campaign by the Cuban government to have them freed. Both of the freed agents have joined the lobbying effort.

The pair already say the Bergdahl exchange shows a deal is possible, despite the criticism Obama has faced since the controversial swap of the U.S. soldier for five Taliban figures who'd been detained at Guantanamo Bay.

"I think this is the time to do it. I think we had never had a more favorable moment to go that route than we have now. I think that the end result would have an important and positive impact, not only on us, but also on future generations," Rene Gonzalez said during Tuesday's teleconference.

A government employee works next to a mural showing the Cuban Five in Havana in August 2005. Three of them remain imprisoned in the United States.
A government employee works next to a mural showing the Cuban Five in Havana in August 2005. Three of them remain imprisoned in the United States.

But State Department officials have stressed that Bergdahl's case is different, given that he was a member of the U.S. armed forces who was captured in the midst of a military conflict. However, State Department officials say they are taking steps to ensure that Gross is returned to the United States.

"Alan Gross is an international development worker, and his situation is not comparable in any way to those of the convicted Cuban intelligence agents. The Cuban intelligence agents were tried transparently under due process rights that we extend to all defendants in our judicial system," a State Department spokesman said in an e-mail to CNN.

"Cuban government interlocutors frequently attempt to compare Mr. Gross' imprisonment to that of five convicted Cuban intelligence agents, three of whom continue to serve sentences in the United States."

U.S. officials said Gross was merely trying to help Cubans bypass the island's stringent restrictions on Internet access. But Cuban authorities say Gross was part of a plot to create "a Cuban spring" and destabilize the island's single-party communist government.

U.S. federal prosecutors called the "Cuban Five" a dangerous undercover spy cell. The Cuban government said they were gathering intelligence to prevent terrorist attacks against Cuba.

The apparent U.S. reluctance to pursue a swap hasn't stopped the Cuban government from pushing for it and saying that it would be open to discussing the matter with the United States.

"We are not talking about an exchange, we are talking about unilateral decisions which, obviously, would have to be interrelated," said Cuban Ambassador Jose Ramon Cabañas. "The United States government has called on us to discuss humanitarian concerns. We, too, have a number of humanitarian concerns. We have said repeatedly that we are willing to seek a solution."

CNN's Patrick Oppmann and Catherine E. Shoichet contributed to this report.

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