Secretary of State: No swap of Cuban spies for Alan Gross

Secretary of State John Kerry has declared the U.S. government will not swap five Cuban spies held in the United States for American Alan Gross, serving a 15-year prison term in Havana, but is pushing to win his release as a “humanitarian gesture.”

“They were and have been attempting to trade Alan Gross for the five spies that are in prison here in the U.S., and we’ve refused to do that because there’s no equivalency,” Kerry testified Wednesday before the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

“Alan Gross is wrongly imprisoned, and we’re not going to trade as if it’s spy for spy,” Kerry added in response to a question from Rep. Albio Sires, a Cuban-American Democrat from New Jersey.

But the U.S. government is “trying to find whether there is a humanitarian capacity or not” in Cuba to free Gross, a subcontractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Kerry did not detail those efforts but noted he himself had tried to help Gross before he became secretary of state in February, and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, visited Cuba recently, met with Gross, “and talked to the government.”

Gross’ imprisonment in Havana since Dec. 3, 2009 has become the key stumbling block in efforts to improve U.S.-Cuba relations. Relatives have complained that Gross’ health is failing.

The 63-year-old Maryland man was sentenced to 15 years in prison for delivering communications equipment — paid for by USAID’s pro-democracy programs, which Cuba has outlawed, saying they are part of a “subversive” attempt to topple the government. The equipment, which was to be delivered to Cuba’s small Jewish community, would have given recipients access to the Internet without passing through government censors.

The five Cubans were convicted in a federal trial in Miami in 2001. One was sentenced to two life terms for his role in the deaths of four Miami men during the 1996 shoot-down by Cuban MiGs of two small civilian airplanes. Three are serving sentences of 18 to 30 years, and the fifth man, René González, was released in 2011 but is still serving three years of parole somewhere in Florida.

Kerry did not explain his comment to the committee that he himself had made efforts to free Gross, but he might have been referring to a secret meeting in 2010 with Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez at the home of Havana’s ambassador to the United Nations.

The meeting took place with State Department approval at a time when Kerry, who has traditionally favored closer engagement with Havana, was a Democratic senator from Massachusetts and chairman of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee.

Kerry’s meeting and other U.S. government efforts to win Gross’ release were first reported early this year in a lengthy article in the respected Foreign Affairs magazine. His office did not challenge the report.

In a separate matter, the secretary of state told the House committee that he has worked through unofficial channels to try to find out more about retired FBI agent Robert Levinson, a South Florida resident who disappeared six years ago while on a trip to Iran.

“On Levinson, I have actually engaged in some back-channel diplomacy in an effort to try to see if we can get something done there,” Kerry said, giving no further details.

Levinson’s family in Coral Springs received a video in November 2010 showing a gaunt and bearded Levinson. The FBI has offered a $1 million reward for information leading to the location and recovery of Levinson, who opened a private-investigations firm after his retirement.

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