American contractor Alan Gross has been imprisoned for three years in Cuba for smuggling satellite equipment to the country's Jewish community. NBC's Michael Isikoff reports.
HAVANA, Cuba — Three years after he was arrested in Havana, jailed American contractor Alan Gross is asking the U.S. government to sign a "non-belligerency pact" with Cuba as a first step toward negotiating his release, according to a Cuba policy analyst who just visited him.
Peter Kornbluh , right, stands with Alan Gross, in a picture taken on Kornbluh's iPhone by a guard during his visit to the Havana prison where Gross is being held.
Peter Kornbluh, a Cuba specialist at the National Security Archives, a nonprofit research center in Washington, met with Gross for four hours on Wednesday at the military hospital in Havana where the contractor is being held. He said Gross appeared "extremely thin" — he has lost over 100 pounds since his arrest —and dispirited.
"He’s angry, he’s frustrated, he’s dejected — and he wants his own government to step up" and negotiate, said Kornbluh. "His message is that the United States and Cuba have to sit down and have a dialogue without preconditions. … He told me that the first meeting should result in a non-belligerency pact being signed between the United States and Cuba."
Gross' comments appear to represent a new tack in an aggressive public relations campaign to win his freedom. His supporters have planned a candlelight vigil outside the Cuban interests section in Washington D.C., on Sunday and the U.S. Senate is poised to take up a resolution Monday demanding his release, Gross’ wife, Judy, has also become increasingly critical of the U.S. government for not doing more to demand that her 63-year-old husband be allowed to return home.
Jose Luis Magana / AP
Judy Gross at her home in Washington, D.C. on Nov. 29.
"He feels like a soldier in the field left to die," she said at a press conference in Washington last week.
Gross, who worked for an Agency for International Development contractor, was arrested by the Cubans on Dec. 3, 2009, and accused of smuggling sophisticated satellite and other telecommunications equipment into the country to give to the island’s tiny Jewish community. Gross has said he was only trying to increase Internet access in Cuba. But he was convicted by a Cuban court in March of last year for crimes "against the independence and territorial integrity of the state" and sentenced to 15 years.
Last month, Gross and his wife filed a $60 million lawsuit against the U.S. government and the contractor he was working for, Development Alternatives, charging he was used as a "pawn" in a U.S. government program to change the Castro regime and never advised about the dangers he faced bringing high tech satellite transmission equipment into Cuba. (The State Department, of which AID is a part and which has repeatedly called for Gross’ release, declined comment. Development Alternatives has released a statement saying it has "no higher priority" than bringing Gross home.)
Kornbluh, who has advocated closer U.S.-Cuba dialogue, was in Havana last week to attend a conference marking the 50th anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis. He was granted permission to visit Gross by Cuban officials. (The Cubans so far have denied all news media requests to meet with him.) He said Gross was most upset about being unable to return home to see members of his family who are ill, especially his 90-year-old mother in Texas who has cancer.
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Ever since U.S.-backed Cuban President Fulgencio Batista was forced from power by rebels led by Fidel Castro in 1958, the relationship between the two nations has been fraught with difficulties.
"He really wants to see his mother, who is quite old and infirm,” said Kornbluh. When Kornbluh had his photo taken with Gross, the contractor held up a photo that read: “Hi Mom.” When he asked Gross what he wanted to get out of the lawsuit, the contractor replied: “I want to see my wife and I want to see my mother."
To accomplish that, Gross is seeking to nudge the Obama administration, according to Kornbluh. Gross knows that his freedom "is going to depend on his government negotiating in good faith with the Cubans," said Kornbluh. "His message to Barack Obama is: I’m fired up and ready to go. Where are you at this moment?"
Michael Isikoff is NBC News' national investigative correspondent; NBC News producer Mary Murray also contributed to this report.
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