Former President Jimmy Carter arrived in Cuba Monday to discuss economic policies and ways to improve Washington-Havana relations, which are even more tense than usual over the imprisonment of a U.S. contractor on the island.
Carter was scheduled to meet with Jewish leaders — suggesting that his visit will deal at least partly with the case of Alan Gross, who was arrested in December 2009 while working for Bethesda, Maryland-based Development Alternatives Inc. on a USAID-backed democracy-building project.
Gross has said he was trying to improve internet access for Cuba's small Jewish community. Jewish leaders here, however, have denied working with him. He was convicted and sentenced to 15 years in prison earlier this month for crimes against the state for bringing illegal telecommunications equipment into the country.
Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez and the head of the U.S. diplomatic mission in Cuba, Jonathan Farrar, met Carter and his wife Rosalynn as they arrived at the capital's airport. Carter, who wore a white guayabera shirt, made no comments to the press.
The state-run newspaper Granma noted the visit on Monday, calling Carter a "distinguished visitor."
The trip is under the auspices of the Carter Center, at the invitation of the Cuban government, and is not an official U.S. mission.
Still, both the State Department and Gross' family have expressed hope that Carter's trip may help facilitate the contractor's release.
"We have repeatedly urged the government of Cuba to release Mr. Gross and we encourage others who meet with Cuban officials, including President Carter, to also voice their concerns and make this request," State spokesman Mark Toner said last week.
"If he is able to help Alan in any way while he is there, we will be extraordinarily grateful," Gross's wife Judy E. Gross said in statement over the weekend. "Our family is desperate for Alan to return home, after nearly 16 months in prison. We continue to hope and pray that the Cuban authorities will release him immediately on humanitarian grounds."
Cuba calls Gross a mercenary working on a program paid for by Washington that aimed to bring down Cuba's socialist system, and it has presented him as evidence of U.S. intentions to unleash a "cyberwar" to destabilize the island.
U.S. officials say no rapprochement between the Cold War enemies is possible while Gross remains jailed.
Carter's 1977-1981 presidency coincided with the least-chilly period of U.S.-Cuban relations since shortly after Fidel Castro led his rebels to power in 1959.
During the Carter administration the two nations opened interest sections, which some countries maintain instead of embassies, in their respective capitals.
Washington and Havana have not had formal diplomatic relations since the 1960s, and the United States maintains economic and financial sanctions on the island.
Carter visited Cuba in May 2002 on a six-day tour during which he met with then-President Fidel Castro and criticized both Washington's embargo and the lack of political plurality on the island.