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US delegation visits Cuba to ease tensions

Seven lawmakers hope to free imprisoned US contractor Alan Gross and take steps to improve political relationship.
Last Modified: 19 Feb 2013 06:02
Senator Patrick Leahy (left) is leading the group on its three-day visit to Cuba [Reuters]

A seven-member delegation of US lawmakers has arrived in Cuba in the latest effort to improve political relations that have been frozen since US government contractor Alan Gross was imprisoned there in 2009.

Democratic senator Patrick Leahy, who saw Gross and met with Cuban president Raul Castro and other high-ranking officials a year ago, is leading the group of five senators and two members of the House of Representatives on a three-day visit to communist Cuba.

"Every one of us has an interest in Cuba," Leahy said upon arrival.

"There are obvious problems between our two countries, but we are not here to negotiate. We are here to listen and then go home and talk about what we see."

- US Senator Patrick Leahy (D)

"We all want to see relations improve and both sides take steps in that direction," he said.

The lawmakers, all Democrats except for Arizona senator Jeff Flake, include congressmen Chris Van Hollen, who represents Gross's district in Maryland, and Jim McGovern of Massachusetts; and senators Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island.

Members of the group said they planned to meet with Gross, parliament president Ricardo Alarcon, foreign minister Bruno Rodriguez and perhaps Raul Castro.

Leahy said the delegation would like to take Gross with them when it leaves for Haiti on Wednesday, but doubted that was possible.

"There are obvious problems between our two countries, but we are not here to negotiate. We are here to listen and then go back home and talk about what we see," he said.

Despite the tension between the US and Cuba, more people travelled between the two countries in 2012, cash remittances sent to the island also increased, as did food-for-cash sales under a 2000 amendment to US trade embargo.

Warming relations

Between 450,000 and 500,000 Cuban Americans and Americans visited Cuba, according to tourism industry sources, and food sales increased by $100m to $457m, making the US one of Cuba's top 10 trading partners and second provider of tourists after Canada.

President Castro has lifted most travel restrictions and freed Cubans to buy and sell homes and cars over the past year, even as he accelerates efforts to reform the Soviety-style economy in a more market-friendly direction.

The Obama administration has said relations will not improve while Gross remains in custody.

In addition, under the 1996 'Helms-Burton' law, sanctions cannot be lifted until Cuba's one-party communist political system is changed, a demand rejected by the Cuban government.

Gross, 63, was arrested in Havana in December 2009 and sentenced to 15 years in prison for installing Internet networks under a secretive US program the Cuban government considers subversive.

The case put the brakes on a brief warming in long-hostile US-Cuba relations during the first 11 months of Obama's first term in office.

Cuba has linked Gross' fate to that of five agents imprisoned in the late 1990s for infiltrating Miami exile organisations and US military bases. The agents, known as the Cuban Five, were sentenced to long terms ranging from 15 years to life and are considered heroes in Cuba.

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