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february 19, 2013 • 10:32 PM

Cuba's Raul Castro meets with U.S. congressional delegation

Cuba's President Raul Castro waves to the media before an official dinner at La Moneda Presidential Palace during the summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) in Santiago, January 27, 2013.
Foto: Andres Stapff / Reuters
 

A seven-member U.S. congressional delegation met on Tuesday with Cuban President Raul Castro, official media reported, to improve relations that have been strained since U.S. government contractor Alan Gross was imprisoned there in 2009.

Members of the group, which arrived on Monday, also met with Gross, said a delegation member who asked not to be identified.

A statement issued by the Cuban government on Tuesday said Castro and Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez met first with Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont to discuss "issues of interest for both countries," then held talks with other lawmakers.

Leahy met with Castro, Rodriguez and Gross last year.

The senator, who spoke with reporters on Monday, said Gross's fate and reforms under way in Cuba would top the group's agenda.

The Cuban statement, released Tuesday with video of the meeting, said the U.S. delegation also held meetings with parliament president Ricardo Alarcon and Rodriguez.

Leahy was expected to issue a statement on Wednesday.

Other members of the delegation included Republican Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona and Democratic Senators Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, Democratic Representative Jim McGovern of Massachusetts and Representative Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat who represents Gross' district in Maryland.

Gross, 63, was arrested in Havana in December 2009 and sentenced to 15 years in prison for installing Internet networks under a secretive U.S. program the Cuban government considers subversive.

The case halted a brief detente in long-hostile U.S.-Cuba relations.

Cuba has linked Gross' fate to that of five agents imprisoned in the late 1990s for infiltrating Miami exile organizations and U.S. military bases.

The agents, known as the Cuban Five, were sentenced to long terms, ranging from 15 years to life, and are considered heroes in Cuba.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, when he was a senator from Massachusetts, met with Rodriguez in New York in 2010 to discuss the Gross case, according to Foreign Affairs magazine. Former President Jimmy Carter also met with Raul Castro in Havana in 2011.

The Obama administration has said relations will not improve while Gross remains in custody. Under the 1996 'Helms-Burton' law, U.S. sanctions cannot be lifted until Cuba's one-party Communist political system is changed, a demand rejected by the Cuban government.

(Additional reporting by Nelson Acosta; Editing by Stacey Joyce)

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