The United States called on Cuba on Wednesday to allow an imprisoned American contractor to travel home to attend his mother’s funeral as a humanitarian gesture.
Alan Gross, 65, was sentenced to 15 years in prison in Cuba in 2011 after being convicted of “acts against the independence or territorial integrity of the state” for allegedly distributing communications equipment as a contractor for the US aid agency USAID.
Washington has repeatedly called for his release, and on Wednesday State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki offered “our deepest and sincerest condolences” following the news that his 92-year-old mother Evelyn had died after a long battle with lung cancer.
“We obviously feel it is a tragedy that he was unable to be home in the United States at his mother’s bedside for her passing,” Psaki told reporters.
“We’ve urged the Cuban government to grant Mr. Gross a humanitarian furlough so that he can travel to the United States and be with his family during this time of mourning.”
Cuban officials also offered “heartfelt condolences” to Gross’s family and repeated an offer to resolve the situation by reopening the cases of three Cubans serving long jail terms in the US after being convicted of spying.
Gross’s family said the news of his mother’s death “is a devastating blow for Alan and our family.”
“I am extremely worried that now Alan will give up all hope of ever coming home and do something drastic,” his wife Judy said in a statement.
“Surely, there must be something President [Barack] Obama can do to secure Alan’s immediate release.”
The family said Cuban officials had refused to give Gross a chance to visit his mother while she was alive, despite repeated pleas after she was diagnosed with cancer.
But a senior Cuban foreign ministry official, Josefina Vidal, recalled that when the mother of Gerardo Hernandez, one of the so-called Cuban Five, had died, he “could not travel to visit and say goodbye.”
Hernandez, Antonio Guerrero and Ramon Labanino are the three remaining prisoners still held in the United States after their 1998 arrest.
Cuba repeated “its firm determination to seek a joint solution with the United States to the cases of Gross, Gerardo, Ramon and Antonio, acceptable to both parties and which takes into account the humanitarian concerns of both governments and their families.”
Gross’s family and US officials have also raised concerns about his health. He was arrested in 2009 and is said to have lost more than 100 pounds (45 kilos) in weight. He suffers from chronic pain and the family is concerned that he is losing his will to live.
The US and Cuba have not had full diplomatic relations since 1961. In 1962, Washington imposed an economic embargo on the island, the only Communist-run country in the Americas.
Washington has so far ruled out swapping Gross for the remaining “Cuban Five.” Two others were freed after serving their sentences.