HAVANA, Mar 31 – Former US president Jimmy Carter met Fidel and Raul Castro in Cuba but failed to win the freedom of a jailed American contractor whose detention is straining ties.
The seasoned negotiator met US State Department contractor Alan Gross, held since late 2009 and sentenced on state security charges this month to 15 years in prison, and called for the "innocent" man\’s release.
And before leaving the island, Carter voiced hope on local television that US President Barack Obama would pardon five Cubans jailed in the United States for espionage.
But even after a marathon six-hour meeting Tuesday with President Raul Castro, and talks with his revolutionary icon brother Fidel who greeted Carter as "an old friend," the globe-trotting American dignitary departed for the airport having made little apparent headway in securing Gross\’s freedom.
"We are disappointed that he did not come back with Mr Gross," State Department spokesman Mark Toner said in Washington. "But we’re disappointed to a larger extent because we believe he should have been released long ago."
Carter\’s three-day trip was a private visit at Havana\’s invitation, aimed at improving US-Cuban relations, and as the only sitting or former US president to meet with the communist leadership in its 52-year rule, his mission here carried considerable political weight.
US diplomats had said they hoped Carter would intercede in the Gross case, but Cuba\’s showed no sign of bending to US pressure.
"The Cuban officials made it very clear to me before I left my home that the freedom of Alan Gross would not be granted," Carter told reporters.
But he was allowed to meet Gross, and Carter said that while the American had lost a lot of weight, "he still seems to be in good spirits, professing his innocence."
The 86-year-old Nobel Peace Prize laureate said he hoped Castro\’s government would either pardon Gross, 61, or release him on humanitarian grounds.
"He is innocent of any serious crime" and "any serious threat to the Cuban government or the Cuban people," Carter said.
Carter on Wednesday also sat down with more than 20 dissidents, including 10 former political prisoners and award-winning blogger Yoani Sanchez, whose blog has a broad Internet following.
The dissidents had hoped Carter\’s credibility on the global stage would go far towards helping win Gross\’s release and improving conditions between the Cold War adversaries.
"Because he has the experience that managed the release (in 2010) of an American in North Korea, maybe he can do the same here, but the Cuban government is harder," said Sanchez.
Former political prisoner Oscar Biscet said "Carter understands the suffering of the Cuban people," and he hoped the American could "help us achieve human rights and the move toward freedom."
Carter called for the United States to make its own gestures to Havana, including freeing the five Cubans imprisoned for 12 years.
But Carter still insisted: "I did not come here with the idea of arranging any kind of swap" involving Gross and the so-called Cuban Five.
He also said Washington ought to drop Cuba from its US terrorism blacklist, calling terror accusations against the island "completely unfounded."
Blacklisted nations are ineligible for US economic aid or trade preferences.
Gross was convicted of "acts against the independence or territorial integrity" of Cuba, and sentenced to 15 years.
He was arrested in December 2009 for delivering laptops and communications equipment to Cuba\’s small Jewish community, though the community\’s leaders, who met Carter on Monday, have denied that.
Raul Castro said farewell to Carter Wednesday at the airport in Havana, and after describing him as the best US president in his dealings with Cuba, Castro said Havana was willing to talk with Washington "to make progress in solving common problems."
Carter first visited Cuba in 2002, hosted by revolutionary leader and then-president Fidel, and called for Washington to end its decades-long economic embargo on the island. The embargo still stands.