Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) along with a delegation of US lawmakers paid a visit to Cuba on Monday, February 18, to monitor the island’s economic reforms, whiling emphasizing the importance of freeing Alan Gross, an American jailed since 2009 for illegally distributing communications equipment there while on a U.S.-funded democracy-building program. Gross’ protracted detention has caused a chasm in relations between the two countries. He is currently serving a 15-year sentence.
The Congressional trip was the first to the only Communist-run country in the Western hemisphere by high-level U.S. politicians since President Obama’s re-election in November.
This marks Leahy’s second trip to Cuba in the last year. He had previously met with President Raul Castro and visited with Gross in prison.
According to an Associated Press report, a State Department official said that in their meetings, the lawmakers plan to stress that releasing Gross from his incarceration would be a crucial prerequisite for improved ties.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, the official said they lacked authority to comment publicly about the sensitive visit.
The delegation will also attempt to gain a perspective economic changes that have been instituted over the years in Cuba by President Castro, the official said, including the legalization of limited private enterprise, the creation of a real estate market and the elimination of travel restrictions for most islanders.
The delegation also includes Sens. Jeff Flake, R-Arizona; Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio; Debbie Stabenow, D-Michigan; and Sheldon Whitehouse, D-Rhode Island, along with Democratic congressmen Jim McGovern of Massachusetts and Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, Gross’s home state.
The group arrived Monday and is scheduled to depart early Wednesday. It was not clear with whom they would meet, or if they would be granted permission to see Gross.
Cuba has said it is willing to consider releasing the 63-year-old, but in return wants Washington to negotiate the fate of five Cuban intelligence agents sentenced to long jail terms in the United States.
Washington has said publicly that a swap is not in the cards.