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US official rejects Cuba’s offer to swap contractor Alan Gross for 5 Cuban spies

By Juan O. Tamayo, The Miami Herald –

MIAMI — Cuba’s offer to swap U.S. government subcontractor Alan Gross for five Cuban spies convicted in Miami is not at all acceptable to Washington, a senior State Department official affirmed Monday on the third anniversary of Gross’ arrest.

Asked directly if a Gross-for-spies swap might be possible during President Barack Obama’s next four years in the White House, the official replied, “No, I don’t think so.”

“We reject the notion of linkage,” added the official, who met with several journalists in Miami but asked for anonymity under State Department procedures. “There is no parallel between the two cases.”

Gross’ continued detention in Havana has become a powerful roadblock in efforts to improve U.S.-Cuba relations, with the Obama administration holding off talks on migration, drug and people smuggling and other issues until he returns home.

The official noted that while the administration will continue its policy of helping the Cuban people — it lifted most restrictions on Cuban-American travel and remittances — it is “very hard to see us making progress in bilateral relations while he is in jail.”

U.S. officials have previously denied the possibility of a deal for Gross and the spies. But the third anniversary of the U.S. man’s arrest sparked a new round of speculation — some of it fueled by Cuban authorities — about a swap.

Gross, 63, of Potomac, Md., was arrested in Havana on Dec. 3, 2009 after he delivered three satellite telephones to Cuban Jews so they could access the Internet and contact people abroad without using the government’s tightly monitored telephone monopoly.

The phones were financed by the U.S. government under pro-democracy programs that Havana outlawed as an attempt to topple the communist system.

Gross was sentenced to 15 years in prison for acts against Cuba’s “independence or territorial integrity.”

The five Cuban spies were convicted in Miami in 1998 as part of the so-called Wasp Network. Cuba calls them heroes, saying they were assigned to South Florida to monitor and avert any possible exile terrorist plots against the island.

Four remain in prison, with one serving two life sentences on murder-conspiracy charges for helping Cuban warplanes shoot down two civilian airplanes in 1996, killing all four South Florida men aboard. The fifth spy completed his 13-year prison term last year and is now serving a three- year parole somewhere in the United States.

The State Department official said that while what Gross was doing in Cuba was “perfectly legal anywhere else in the world,” the five spies were convicted of clearly illegal activities.

The anniversary of Gross’ arrest also brought a flurry of calls for his release, including one issued by Sens. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., and Ben Cardin, D-Md.

”As the unjust imprisonment … nears its three year mark, we were hopeful that the Cuban government would soon announce its intention to grant Mr. Gross’ release,” the senators noted. “Though we are deeply disappointed by Cuba’s failure to make such an indication today, our commitment to Alan’s cause is undiminished and we will continue to work to ensure his immediate and unconditional release.”

In Washington, Deputy State Department spokesman Mark Toner noted that Gross has lost more than 100 pounds since his arrest and suffers from arthritis, and that his family wants him examined by a doctor of his own choosing.

”We continue to ask the Cuban government to grant Alan Gross’s request to travel to the United States to visit his 90-year-old mother, Evelyn Gross, who is gravely ill. This is a humanitarian issue,” Toner added.

The head of the Cuban diplomatic mission in Washington, meanwhile, wrote to those who have expressed concerns about Gross’ health, saying he does not have cancer and suffers only “from chronic illnesses that are typical of his age, which are receiving adequate treatment.”

“Mr. Gross maintains a systematic physical exercise regime on a voluntary basis and eats a balanced diet that includes foods of his choice, which has allowed him to get rid of his former obese condition,” wrote Jose Ramon Cabanas.

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