Sen. Bernard Sanders returned from a two-day trip to Cuba, meeting with the Cuban foreign minister and Alan Gross, the imprisoned U.S. aid worker.
Sanders and two other senators spent a day in Havana on Friday discussing trade, human rights and Gross’ imprisonment with Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez.
“We spent an hour with Alan Gross,” Sanders said Monday from his office in Washington. “It was an interesting conversation and certainly we talked to the foreign minister about that.”
Sanders declined to discuss their conversation with Gross nor would he discuss his physical or mental condition after more than four years in prison.
Sanders said Rodriguez was quite familiar with Gross’ case but gave no indication his release was imminent.
“The goal is for us to get him out of there as soon as possible,” he said.
Gross was arrested in 2009 while working as a subcontractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development to set up Internet access for Cubans. He is serving a 15-year sentence.
His case has become a roadblock to improving relations between the U.S. and the communist government of Cuba. The Cuban government has indicated it would release Gross in exchange for four Cubans imprisoned in the U.S. on espionage and other charges.
Sanders said that the Cuban demand remains the same.
The U.S. has balked at any such trade but Sanders said the Cubans “think it would be a fair exchange.”
Sanders, along with Sens. Jon Tester, D-Mont. and Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., returned to Miami on Saturday and then flew back to the Guantánamo Bay Naval Base, where 155 prisoners with suspected ties to al Qaeda are locked up.
Sanders remains convinced that the U.S. should shut down the prison as soon as possible.
“I think the existence of Guantánamo, the secret nature of Guantánamo, the fact that there are people being held in Guantánamo who have not been tried, who have not had charges placed against them, gives us a black eye before much of the world,” Sanders said.
He said Guantánamo is used in many areas of the world as part of the anti-American propaganda.
Sanders said that about half of the 155 detainees have been cleared for release and should be either returned to their home country or a third country. The high-value detainees should be tried, and if found guilty, serve their prison sentences in the United States.
He also said Guantánamo has cost taxpayers $4.8 billion since it opened in 2002 and $500 million a year to operate.
Sanders again called for the lifting of the U.S. embargo saying it has been an abject failure.
“It is my view after 55 years of an embargo the time has come to normalize relations,” Sanders said.
He said there have been some positive steps on both sides, with the U.S. allowing Cuban-Americans to travel freely to Cuba while the Cuban government now allows Cubans to travel to the U.S.
“Having said that, we have an embargo that is counterproductive,” Sanders said.
He said the embargo, except in limited circumstances, makes it illegal for the average American to visit Cuba.
Sanders also said lifting the embargo would benefit the economies of both countries.
He said the delegation talked briefly about human rights abuses in Cuba with Rodríguez.
“We do not want people to be unjustly imprisoned 90 miles away from us in Cuba,” Sanders said, “and I think that certainly can be part of the discussion.”