By Daniel Trotta
HAVANA (Reuters) - The mother of a U.S. aid contractor serving a 15-year sentence in Cuba died on Wednesday, his lawyer’s office said, further straining a case that has stood in the way of improving U.S.-Cuban relations.
U.S. Agency for International Development subcontractor Alan Gross, 65, has spent the past four and a half years in a Cuban jail, losing more than 100 pounds (46 kg) and becoming increasingly despondent over his conviction for illegally attempting to establish Internet service on the island.
The United States urged Cuba to release Gross temporarily so he could be with his family following his mother's death, but Cuba rejected the idea, saying neither Cuba nor the United States has a protocol permitting overseas visits for prisoners.
During an 8-day hunger strike in April, Gross vowed to return home this year, dead or alive.
"I am extremely worried that now Alan will give up all hope of ever coming home and do something drastic," his wife, Judy Gross, said in a statement. "Surely, there must be something President (Barack) Obama can do to secure Alan's immediate release."
Gross ended his hunger strike at the urging of his mother, Evelyn Gross, 92, who died in Plano, Texas, after a long battle with lung cancer, a statement from his lawyers said.
Although U.S.-Cuban relations have been overtly hostile for more than half a century, they have improved in recent years with both sides agreeing to cooperate on immigration, drug enforcement, oil spill cleanups and other issues. But the Gross case has prevented a more meaningful breakthrough.
Gross was arrested in 2009 for trying to establish an online network for Jews in Havana as a USAID subcontractor.
In 2011, a Cuban court sentenced him to 15 years in prison for illegally providing Internet equipment and service under a U.S. program promoting political change that the Cuban government considered subversive.
Cuba has blamed the United States for Gross' incarceration and repeatedly offered to enter talks without preconditions.
Cuba has also sought to link talks on Gross to the cases of three Cuban agents serving long prison terms in the United States for spying on Cuban exile groups in Florida.
The United States has rejected any trade of the Cuban agents for Gross, and no formal talks have taken place.
The U.S. reiterated its call for Gross' release but also sought a furlough, or temporary release, "so that he can travel to the United States and be with his family during this time of mourning," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters in Washington.
"We have made very clear that this is a strong priority for us," Psaki said.
While expressing condolences to the Gross family, Cuba's top diplomat for U.S. matters, Josefina Vidal, said no such furlough program exists in either country.
She also noted that one of the Cuban agents was denied permission to visit his dying mother.
(Reporting by Daniel Trotta in Havana and Arshad Mohammed in Washington; Editing by David Adams, Susan Heavey and Dan Grebler)