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Sen. Leahy: Time for U.S. and Cuba to Discuss Relationship, ‘Realities of Today’

February 25, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Sen. Patrick Leahy returned from a congressional delegation to Cuba, where U.S. lawmakers tried unsuccessfully to secure the release of American Alan Gross, who is serving a 15-year prison sentence. Ray Suarez talks to the senator about that trip and about President Raoul Castro's announcement he will leave office in 2018.

RAY SUAREZ: We turn now to Cuba, where President Raul Castro announced this weekend he will be stepping down in 2018.

Last week, Sen. Patrick Leahy led a congressional delegation to the country, seeking the release of American Alan Gross, who is currently serving a 15-year prison sentence. The Cuban government says Gross illegally distributed communications equipment on the island while on a U.S.-funded democracy-building program. Gross has claimed innocence.

I’m joined now by Sen. Patrick Leahy.

Senator, welcome.

How is Alan Gross? You got a chance to see him.

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY, D-Vt.: Well, he’s lost an enormous amount of weight since he’s been in prison. I saw him last year and saw him again this year. Obviously, he wants to come home. He wants to be with his family.

And he feels frustrated that he’s being held unnecessarily for what at best was not a significant violation.

RAY SUAREZ: The status of his health is the subject of disagreement between the Cuban government and his family back here in America. Is he sick?

PATRICK LEAHY: I’m not a doctor. I can’t make that decision. I would like to have an independent physician look at him.

But I think the best thing would be if he could come home. It’s — and I understand his frustration. And the — there are a couple of positive things. One, the Cubans at the highest level have agreed with me that they do not consider him a spy. That makes it easier to try to work something out.

Secondly, I see some glimmers of hope. But it’s going to require, I think, some real work on behalf of both countries. I would hope work would be outside of — out of the spotlight, work that can be done quietly. And who knows. It may come to what I hope is the release of Alan Gross.

RAY SUAREZ: Was he adequately trained by the United States government? He was there as part of a democracy-building exercise which is not welcome and not recognized by the Cuban government. Was it at all a risky visit that he was on?

PATRICK LEAHY: Well, I think there could be a lot of debate on that.

I know it was a contractor who hired him. I worry that the contractor was more interested in its own goals than what might be the safety of Mr. Gross. But I think it would probably not help him to go into great detail on to what extent he was trained or not. But I agree with the Cubans. He’s not a spy. He’s somebody who believes in helping other people.

He holds no animosity toward the Cuban people. And he stressed that several times to me. He has no animosity toward the Cuban people, but he cannot understand the actions of their government.

RAY SUAREZ: At this point, apart from the humanitarian concern, is his continued incarceration a stumbling block, an impediment to improved U.S.-Cuban relations?

PATRICK LEAHY: You know, ever since the 1960s, we found one stumbling block or one impediment after another.

I think it’s time that we start sitting down and talking about relationships between our two countries, relationships that reflect the realities of today, not the past history, sometimes the imagined history, of the ’60s and the ’70s. I think if we do that and look at a whole host of things, I think Mr. Gross is better off.

So long as the whole question of U.S.-Cuban relationship revolves just on the question of Alan Gross, I don’t think it helps him. And I want to help him. I want to see him released.

PATRICK LEAHY: And I also — you know, he was very open. He talked with Chris Van Hollen, who, of course, is congressman. I asked the Cubans if I could bring Rep. Van Hollen because he knows him. And they readily agreed with that.

RAY SUAREZ: Since your visit to Havana, President Castro has announced that at the end of his current term, he’s going to step down from office.

When you met with him last week, did he give any indication that he was looking for the exit door?

PATRICK LEAHY: He made it very clear that he believed in the two-term limit, something that he talked about before.

RAY SUAREZ: And did you get a chance to meet the man who some say might be his successor, the new vice president?

PATRICK LEAHY: No, I have not met him.

RAY SUAREZ: So, what’s your impression of the willingness of the current leadership team to continue on the path that Cuba is on today?

PATRICK LEAHY: Well, I briefed the White House since I came back on what they had to say.

I mean, Cuba doesn’t expect to change our form of government. We don’t expect to change theirs. But I think that it’s an anomaly that we have the kind of relationships or lack of relationships between our two countries. For example, the United States will allow Cuban-Americans to go to Cuba to visit. They won’t allow Irish-Americans or Italian-Americans, except by very special circumstances.

You know, it makes — it certainly makes no sense to that region or to the rest of the world. I think, if I were to say anything, it would be that both countries have got to be willing to sit down and quietly work out, knowing we’re not going to change each other’s basic philosophies, but we can change a great deal in the behavior of both countries.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, given those words that you just said, that we — the two countries aren’t going to change each other, is it your impression that President Castro wants a better relationship with the United States at this moment?

PATRICK LEAHY: I think he does.

And I want to have our country reciprocate and try to have a better relationship with him.

RAY SUAREZ: Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, thanks for joining us.