U.S. lawmakers visit Cuba

In this Oct. 23, 2009 file photo, President Barack Obama and Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., arrive at Logan International Airport in Boston. The nominee for U.S. Secretary of State Kerry once held up millions in funding for secretive USAID democracy-building programs in Cuba.
AP Photo/Michael Dwyer, File

HAVANA (AP) — A delegation of American lawmakers led by Sen. Patrick Leahy visited Cuba Monday to gauge the island’s economic changes and stress the importance of freeing a jailed American whose detention has chilled relations between the two countries.

The trip was the first to the Communist-run island by high-level U.S. politicians since President Barack Obama’s re-election in November.

It comes a year after another group of legislators led by Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, came to Cuba and met with President Raul Castro. They also visited Alan Gross, an American jailed since 2009 for illegally distributing communications equipment on the island while on a U.S.-funded democracy-building program.

In their meetings, the lawmakers will stress that freeing Gross, who is serving a 15-year sentence, is a crucial prerequisite for improved ties, a State Department official told The Associated Press.

The official spoke on condition of anonymity, lacking authorization to comment publicly about the sensitive visit.

The lawmakers also hope to get a firsthand look at economic changes on the island instituted by Castro in recent years, 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.

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