Kerry: U.S. is “currently engaged” in talks to free Alan Gross

FILE - In this Nov. 27, 2012 file photo provided by U.S. lawyer James L. Berenthal, jailed American Alan Gross poses for a photo during a visit by Rabbi Elie Abadie and Berenthal at Finlay military hospital in Havana, Cuba.
FILE - In this Nov. 27, 2012 file photo provided by U.S. lawyer James L. Berenthal, jailed American Alan Gross poses for a photo during a visit by Rabbi Elie Abadie and Berenthal at Finlay military hospital in Havana, Cuba.
James L. Berenthal / ASSOCIATED PRESS

The Obama administration is “currently engaged” in behind-the-scenes discussions to win the release of U.S. government subcontractor Alan Gross, jailed in Cuba for the past four years, according to Secretary of State John Kerry.

Kerry, who engaged in another secret effort to free Gross in 2010, made the largely unnoticed remarks Tuesday at a news conference in NATO headquarters in Belgium, after he was asked about U.S. citizens detained in Cuba, Iran and North Korea.

“In the case of Mr. Gross, we’ve had any number of initiatives and outreaches over the last several years and engagement with a number of different individuals who have traveled to Cuba, met with people individually there and elsewhere,” Kerry said.

“And we are currently engaged in some discussions regarding that, which I’m not at liberty to go into in any kind of detail,” he added, declining further comment on a case that has become the key roadblock to improved U.S.-Cuba relations.

“With respect to the number of American citizens who are being held in different places …we have been engaged behind the scenes — which is often the way these issues are best managed — in every single case in order to try to secure the safety of those people, and in order ultimately to be able to secure their release,” he said.

“The bottom line is that we have raised these issues not just in Korea — North Korea, not just in Cuba, but also with respect to a number of Americans who are held in Iran,” he concluded. “And I have personally raised those names and those individuals with my counterpart as well as in other ways. And we are hopeful that in each case, at some point we will be able to win their freedom and have them rejoined with their families.”

The State Department said late Wednesday that “securing Alan Gross’ immediate release remains a top priority of the United States. We use every appropriate diplomatic channel to press for Mr. Gross’ release, both publicly and privately.”

Kerry did not identify the other party or parties in the “discussions” to free Gross, 64, a Maryland development specialist man serving a 15-yerar prison sentence in Havana for delivering sophisticated communications equipment to Cuban Jews.

He was convicted of endangering the island’s national security because the equipment was paid for by the U.S. Agency for International Development as part of a pro-democracy program. The Cuban government regards the USAID programs as part of an effort to undermine and even topple its communist system.

The Obama administration has repeatedly urged Cuba to free Gross as a humanitarian gesture because he has reportedly lost 100 pounds since his arrest on Dec. 3, 2009 and suffers from several ailments. It also has declared that it will not take any further steps to warm up relations with Havana until he returns home.

Cuba has asked for a “humanitarian gesture” in return — the release of four Cuban intelligence agents held in U.S. prisons for spying on U.S. military installations and exile groups. A fifth spy completed his sentence and returned to Havana earlier this year.

One of the five is serving two life sentences for conspiracy to commit murder of the four South Florida men killed in 1996 when Cuban MiG fighter jets shot down two Brothers to the Rescue airplanes. A U.N.-backed investigation ruled the unarmed planes were downed in international airspace.

Obama administration officials have repeatedly said they will not trade the Cuban spies for Gross because the two cases are very different.

Kerry already had made one secret effort to free Gross in 2010, when he was serving in the U.S. Senate as a Democrat from Massachusetts and as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

At the request of Cuban diplomats in Washington and with State Department approval, Kerry met with Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez at the home of Havana’s ambassador to the United Nations, according to a report earlier this year in the magazine Foreign Affairs.

“There was no quid pro quo, but the meeting seemed to reassure the Cubans that the democracy programs would change, and the Cubans expressed confidence” that Gross would be freed after his trial, which was held in March 2011, the report noted.

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