- Sens. Jeff Flake and Tom Udall are able to meet with Alan Gross
- Gross is a U.S. government subcontractor serving 15 years in Cuban prison
- Cuban government has called for a prisoner swap for Gross
When U.S. Sens. Jeff Flake and Tom Udall fly back from Cuba to the United States on Wednesday, they will carry the regret of not being able to take with them Alan Gross, a U.S. government subcontractor serving a 15-year prison sentence on the island.
"Alan wants to come home," Flake, an Arizona Republican, said at a news conference after a two-hour meeting with the imprisoned American on Tuesday.
The two senators, who are critics of the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba, said they had come to Cuba to again push for Gross' release. They said his imprisonment is an impediment to improved U.S.-Cuba relations.
"Other people have tried to come and meet with him and not been able to," said Udall, a New Mexico Democrat. "That's an optimistic thing."
Last week, CNN was the first to report that Gross was refusing to meet with U.S. diplomats in Havana, in protest over the slow progress to free him.
Gross' attorney Scott Gilbert said his client told him he would be happy to see U.S. officials "at the airport, when he leaves Cuba, assuming he's alive."
Flake and Udall said they also met Tuesday with Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla.
The Cuban government has called for a prisoner swap: Gross for three imprisoned Cuban intelligence agents serving lengthy federal prison sentences in the United States.
But the U.S. State Department has nixed the idea of a swap, saying Gross was an aid worker merely trying to help Cuba's small Jewish community get online despite Cuban government restrictions on Internet access.
Frustrated by the diplomatic impasse, Gross has threatened to kill himself if he isn't freed soon.
"I do feel we are closer," Flake said. "One, because of what Alan Gross has said himself. This is going to end one way or another. We have gone on five years and any benefit the Cuban government may have seen has to have evaporated."
Gross was arrested in 2009 for smuggling in banned communications equipment to Cuba.
He was convicted of violating the island's sovereignty and sentenced to 15 years in prison. Cuban authorities say he was part of a larger program by the U.S. Agency for International Development to undermine the island's single-party communist form of government.
In 2014, USAID had to defend programs to create a text messaging "Cuban Twitter" program to stir dissent and another program to recruit future leaders on the island.
On Monday, The Associated Press reported that the agency would soon cease all covert programs in Cuba.
"There's been a statement that there wont be covert programs run out of AID anymore and that's a good thing," Flake said. "Its not just a source of tension between the countries, it puts Americans in danger and really cheapens AID's mission around the world."