HAVANA (Reuters) - 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 U.S. government contractor Alan Gross was imprisoned there in 2009.
Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy, who saw 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 members of the House of Representatives on a three-day visit to communist Cuba.
Despite the stalemate, more people travelled between the two countries in 2012, cash remittances sent to the island also 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 Cuba, according to tourism industry sources, and food sales increased by $100 million (64.6 million pounds) 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 Senator Jeff Flake, include congressman Chris Van Hollen who represents Gross’s district in Maryland, Senators Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island and congressman 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 also visit famed U.S. writer Ernest Hemingway’s estate on the outskirts of Havana and meet with members of the diplomatic corps.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, when he was a senator from Massachusetts, reportedly met with Rodriguez, the Cuban foreign minister, in New York in 2010 to discuss the Gross case, according to Foreign Affairs magazine. Former President James Carter also met with Raul Castro in Havana in 2011.
Delegation members said they were also interested in reforms in Cuba.
President Castro has lifted most travel restrictions and freed Cubans to buy and sell homes and cars over the past year, even as he accelerates efforts to reform the Soviet-style economy in a more market-friendly direction.
The Obama administration has said relations will not improve while Gross remains in custody. In addition, under the 1996 ‘Helms-Burton’ law, sanctions cannot be lifted until Cuba’s one-party communist political system is changed, a demand rejected by the Cuban government.
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 put the brakes on a brief warming in long-hostile U.S.-Cuba relations during the first 11 months of President Barack Obama’s first term in office.
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.
(Corrects to say Senator Stabenow is from Michigan, not Missouri, in ninth paragraph)
Editing by David Adams and Philip Barbara