Amanda Iacone, wtop.com
WASHINGTON – Time is growing short to secure the release of a Maryland native who has been in a Cuban jail for three years, said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., who met with the aid worker during a trip to the isolated Communist country this week.
Sixty-three-year-old Alan Gross was sentenced to 15 years in a Cuban prison in 2011. Urged on by his wife Judy Gross, U.S. lawmakers and even former President Jimmy Carter have visited Cuba trying to secure his release.
Van Hollen and other U.S. lawmakers also met with Cuban President Raul Castro this week and they stressed the importance of releasing Gross in order to improve relations between the two countries, Van Hollen said.
“We think this is the moment to make a really big push,” to bring Gross home, Van Hollen said, a day after returning from Cuba.
Van Hollen tells WTOP that Gross was very thin and that he has had to punch new holes in his belt because he’s lost so much weight. Judy Gross has said that her husband’s health has deteriorated and that he may have cancer.
“His mind is still very alert and he follows developments both in Cuba and of his own case very closely,” Van Hollen said. “He’s hugely frustrated and angry about the fact that he’s now been unjustly held in prison in Cuba for more than three years.”
Van Hollen said he asked Castro to release Alan Gross, who was accused of illegally distributing communications equipment on the island while on a U.S.- funded democracy-building program. But Castro repeated a demand that the U.S. release five Cuban intellegence agents sentenced to long prison terms here.
“The continued detention of Alan Gross is an impediment to moving forward and therefore it’s in both of our interests that he be released and that we then can have a conversation about other other ways to improve relations,” Van Hollen said.
He said it’s too early to know what will happen to Gross but he said it’s important that the delegation is able to broker his release directly with the Cuban president.
The delegation’s visit comes a year after another group of lawmakers traveled to the island and met with both Castro and Gross.
During the past year, Judy Gross has turned up the heat on the U.S. government to bring her husband home. She switched lawyers, sued the contractor Gross was working for and has also turned to the press to bring attention to her husband’s plight.
The Associated Press contributed to this report. Follow @WTOP on Twitter.