By Daniel Trotta
HAVANA (Reuters) - Four U.S. lawmakers visiting Cuba on Monday urged President Barack Obama to authorize negotiations with the Cuban government about freeing jailed U.S. contractor Alan Gross.
The visiting Americans, who met with Gross in his hospital prison, also expressed hope those talks would cover other issues such as the U.S. trade embargo of Cuba and the case of three Cuban spies serving long prison terms in the United States.
Gross, 65, is serving a 15-year sentence over his 2009 arrest and 2011 conviction for attempting to set up an Internet service for Cuban Jews while working as a subcontractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Cuba considered his work a subversive program that used illegal, undercover and noncommercial technology.
Cuba has said it is willing to engage in negotiations about Gross without preconditions, while U.S. officials have disregarded the offer as an attempt to exchange Gross for the three Cuban agents.
"It is time that both countries make a serious commitment to engage in negotiations with no preconditions and we will communicate that to the White House upon our return," Barbara Lee, a Democrat from California, told reporters.
She was joined by three other Democrats from the House, Gregory Meeks of California, Sam Farr of New York and Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri, on a mission sponsored by the Center for Democracy in the Americas, a group dedicated to changing U.S. policy toward countries in the hemisphere.
All four representatives have long supported the normalization of U.S. relations with Cuba.
The congressional delegation met with Gross at his hospital prison and also with Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez on Monday, and they were briefed by American officials before departing the United States.
About a year ago, Cuba began offering to enter talks without preconditions, according to Gross's lawyer, Scott Gilbert.
Cuba previously had more directly sought to link Gross's incarceration to the cases of the so-called Cuban Five, unregistered agents who were caught spying on Cuban exile groups in Florida that opposed the communist government in Havana. Two of the five have been released.
The United States has rejected any trade of the Cuban agents for Gross, and no formal talks have taken place.
(Editing by Ken Wills)