- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 20, 2013

HAVANA (AP) — U.S. lawmakers confirmed Wednesday that they had visited an American man whose detention and long sentence in Cuba has hampered efforts to improve ties between the countries, but they gave no details on his condition or what was said.

The seven-member delegation led by Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat, also met with Cuban President Raul Castro and other senior officials.

Mr. Leahy said that the two sides “discussed the continuing obstacles and the need to improve relations,” adding that a rapprochement “is in the interest of both countries.” The meeting was also covered in the Cuban press, with a front-page photo of a smiling Mr. Leahy and Mr. Castro seated at a small table in front of a thick clutch of palm fronds.

Mr. Leahy spent his last morning in Cuba strolling around central Havana, admiring the Capitol, which is almost an exact replica of the one he works at in Washington. The Cuban version, people in Havana like to point out, is several inches higher.

The lawmaker also saw a historic theater and snapped a photo of his wife standing next to a 1939 Ford Model A convertible with a rumble seat in the back.

“I’ve been to Cuba several times, and I think that we’re at a time when I would hope that both our countries would adapt to the 21st century as far as relations,” Mr. Leahy told The Associated Press.

“I had very good talks with President Castro, (and) with others also, and I’ll talk to President Obama when I get back, and I will fill him in on those talks. I’ll also give him my recommendations.”

Mr. Leahy and Rep. Chris Van Hollen, Maryland Democrat, met with the 63-year-old Alan Gross on Tuesday, likely at a military hospital where Gross has been held since his arrest in 2009.

Asked about Gross’ condition, the senator did not give specifics. Gross, who is from Maryland, has lost more than 100 pounds in prison since his arrest and is suffering from several chronic ailments.

“I think Gross would be a lot better off if he could be home,” Mr. Leahy said. “I hope that a day will come soon that he can be home.”

Gross is serving a 15-year-sentence for bringing communications equipment to the island illegally while on a democracy-building program funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Mr. Leahy said upon his arrival in Cuba on Monday that nothing would make him happier than to leave with Gross on the plane, but he also added such a result was highly unlikely. Cuba has been visited by a parade of American officials over the years, including former President Jimmy Carter and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, and all have left empty-handed.

Mr. Leahy himself led a similar congressional delegation in 2012, meeting with Gross and Mr. Castro as well on that trip.

Cuba has voiced an interest in freeing Gross, but only if Washington agrees to consider releasing five Cuban agents sentenced to long jail terms in the United States.

One of those men completed his sentence last year but must serve three more years of probation before he will be allowed to return to Cuba.

The congressional delegation also includes Sens. Jeff Flake, Arizona Republican; Sherrod Brown, Ohio Democrat; Debbie Stabenow, Michigan Democrat; and Sheldon Whitehouse, Rhode Island Democrat, along with Rep. James P. McGovern, Massachusetts Democrat. They are scheduled to travel to Haiti next.