Lawmakers visit Cuba in effort to rescue jailed U.S. contractor
HAVANA — A seven-member delegation of U.S. lawmakers arrived in Cuba on Monday in the latest effort to move forward political relations that have been at a standstill since government contractor Alan Gross was imprisoned here in 2009.
Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy, who visited Gross and met with Cuban President Raul Castro and other high-ranking officials a year ago, is leading the group of five senators and two House members on a three-day visit.
Despite the stalemate, more people traveled between the two countries in 2012, and cash remittances sent to the island increased, as did food-for-cash sales under a 2000 amendment to the U.S. trade embargo.
Between 450,000 and 500,000 Cuban Americans and Americans visited the communist nation, according to tourism sources, and food sales increased by $100 million to $457 million, making the United States one of Cuba's top 10 trading partners and second provider of tourists after Canada.
“Every one of us has an interest in Cuba,” Leahy of Vermont said upon arrival.
“We all want to see relations improve and both sides take steps in that direction,” he said.
Leahy said the delegation would like to take Gross with them when it leaves for Haiti on Wednesday, but doubted that was possible.
“There are obvious problems between our two countries, but we are not here to negotiate. We are here to listen and then go back home and talk about what we see,” he said.
The lawmakers, all Democrats except for Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, include Rep. Chris Van Hollen who represents Gross' district in Maryland, Sens. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, and Rep. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts.
Members of the group said they planned to meet with Gross, parliament President Ricardo Alarcon, Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez and perhaps Raul Castro. They will tour writer Ernest Hemingway's estate on the outskirts of Havana and discuss issues with members of the diplomatic corps.