WASHINGTON (JTA) — The top U.S. State Department official dealing with Latin America brought up the plight of Alan Gross in a rare meeting with her Cuban counterpart.
Roberta Jacobson, the assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, met in Washington last week with Josefina Vidal, the Cuban Foreign Ministry’s director general for U.S. affairs.
“Among other issues, the continued imprisonment of Alan Gross was discussed during the meeting,” said a State Department official responding Monday to a JTA query about the meeting, which was posted on the State Department’s daily schedule. “We reiterated again how important it is to the United States that Alan be able to return home and be reunited with his family.”
Meetings at such a senior level between U.S. and Cuban officials are rare.
Gross, 65, of Maryland, is serving a 15-year sentence for “crimes against the state” following his conviction in 2011. He was arrested in December 2009 as he was leaving the country. Working as a subcontractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development, Gross was on a mission to connect Cuba’s small Jewish community to the Internet.
Vidal has indicated in interviews since Gross’ arrest that Cuba was seeking the return to Cuba of five imprisoned spies in return for the Gross. Two of the “Cuban Five” have been released earlier than the maximum time served and returned to the island.
Separately, a group of 44 former officials from Republican and Democratic administrations and Cuban American community leaders wrote President Obama urging him to welcome Cuban reforms by opening up ties with the country.
The letter, reported Monday by Reuters, said Obama should condition such concessions on Cuban moves to release Gross. The Cuban-Americans who signed the letter favor loosening restrictions on relations with Cuba; much of the community still favors keeping restrictions in place.
Earlier last week, Jacobson also had a closed meeting with Yitzhak Shoham, her counterpart in Israel’s Foreign Ministry, who was in Washington to attend the annual American Jewish Committee conference. After the meeting, Shoham and Jacobson attended an AJC memorial for the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish center in Buenos Aires that killed 85 and wounded 300.
Argentine prosecutors believe Hezbollah, backed by Iran, was behind the bombing.