SHAFAQNA (International Shia News Association) After five years of behind-the-scenes talks, entreaties from high-profile emissaries, and statements from two governments, each blaming the other for intransigence, it still comes down to this: Alan P. Gross, an American government contractor, remains imprisoned in Cuba on espionage charges.
As relatives and supporters described Mr. Gross, 65, as being in declining health and growing suicidal over the lack of progress in his case, the White House on Wednesday marked the fifth year of his detention with a statement making clear that “the Cuban government’s release of Alan on humanitarian grounds would remove an impediment to more constructive relations between the United States and Cuba.”
Mr. Gross was detained Dec. 3, 2009, as he was sneaking in communications equipment that would allow unfettered Internet access, as part of a United States Agency for International Development program aimed at fostering democracy.
Cuba labeled him a spy and sentenced him to 15 years in prison on charges of participating in a subversive plot to “destroy the revolution.”
The Castro government has repeatedly linked his case to five Cubans serving long prison sentences in the United States on espionage convictions (two of them have been released after serving their terms). But the American government has said Mr. Gross was not a spy and has rejected, so far, a prisoner swap.
Mr. Gross’s advocates had hoped he would be released as his health deteriorated and as President Obama has expressed interest in improving relations with Cuba; in 2009 he took steps that allowed for more cultural and educational exchanges.
Mr. Gross’s wife, Judy, said on Wednesday that he had lost more than 100 pounds, could barely walk because of chronic hip pain, and had lost five teeth as well as much of the sight in his right eye.
“After five years of literally wasting away, Alan is done,” she said in a statement. “It is time for President Obama to bring Alan back to the United States now; otherwise it will be too late.”
Mr. Gross has told recent visitors that he was planning a hunger strike soon and that he would not celebrate his birthday next year in Cuba, meaning he would either be home or would take his own life.
Any harm Mr. Gross suffers would only frustrate whatever opportunities might be emerging for a change in relations between the two countries, analysts said.
With Mr. Obama showing a determination to use his executive powers to get his way on public policy, many Cuba analysts and lobbyists for more open relations have anticipated new, far-reaching regulatory announcements that would allow Americans to more easily visit the island and support growing private business there.
Only Congress can lift the 54-year-old trade embargo, and there is no political momentum there for change, but Mr. Obama has leeway to allow freer travel to the island and ease the process of going there as well as improve diplomatic relations. Outsiders who have discussed Cuba with White House officials said the administration was reviewing its options, but White House officials declined to comment.
Panama, which will host the Summit of the Americas in April, has invited Cuba to the meeting, leading many Cuba watchers to expect the administration to make some moves before then, as many countries consider American policy toward Cuba a Cold War relic.
But the Gross case has been a sticking point.
“We are optimistic that the president will attend, and I don’t think he wants to go with the same Cuba policy he has now,” said James Williams, a political consultant with the Trimpa Group, which is advising anti-embargo organizations on political strategy.
“The stars are aligned in a way that they never have been before,” he said. “We have an impetus as he enters the last two years of his presidency without any elections coming up and with the Summit of the Americas approaching.”
Others wonder if Cuba really wants better relations or more American visitors, if the result could be a threat to the tight control that the government maintains across society. But its ailing economy — and the fact that its chief benefactor, Venezuela, is in political and economic distress — may provide motivation for a thaw in relations with the United States.
“Cuba does not make it easy,” said Christopher Sabatini, a Cuba scholar at the Americas Society, which has sent the administration a legal analysis on how it could loosen restrictions on Cuba trade. But, he added, “as politically painful and as much a humanitarian issue the Alan Gross case is, we are allowing a policy that failed to be held hostage by a government that won’t change.”
Peter Kornbluh, a researcher at the National Security Archive, a research group in Washington, and an author of the book “Back Channel to Cuba,” about the history of secret discussions between Washington and Havana, said the two countries had swapped prisoners over the years, sometimes including spies for non-spies.
The refusal to exchange the Cuban spies for Mr. Gross “is historically nonsensical given that the secret diplomacy is littered with prisoner exchanges that had no equivalency between the people traded,” he said.
The Cuban government did not comment on Wednesday.