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February 21st, 2013
11:03 AM ET

Rep. McGovern on delegation to release Alan Gross: It's time for U.S. to change Cuba policy

It's been 1,177 days since 63-year-old American contractor Alan Gross was put in a Cuban jail. He's serving a 15-year sentence for bringing banned communications equipment into Cuba as part of a State Department program to spread democracy.

One of the largest Congressional delegations ever to visit the island was in Havana this week, working to free Gross. Cuban President Raul Castro has stated that Gross is not considered to be a spy, but they refuse to set him free. Gross's family is worried he might have cancer. They want to bring him home to get examined and get treatment.

This morning on "Starting Point," Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), who was part of the delegation, talks with Soledad about the efforts to free Gross.

Rush transcript available after the jump.


O'BRIEN: You got to spend a little time with Mr. Gross so how is he doing? How does he look to you physically and emotionally?

REP. JIM MCGOVERN (D), MASSACHUSETTS: Actually two members of our delegation were allowed to see Mr. Gross, Senator Leahy and Congressman Chris Van Hollen who is his congressman. They say he was in pretty good shape, although he's obviously irritated that he's still in Cuba in prison and not allowed to go home and see his wife and his family and his ailing mother.

So we raised the issue with President Castro, who seemed to tie it to the fate of the Cuban five. Those are the Cubans that we have in jail here in the United States. But look, what we need to do, I think we need to re-evaluate our entire policy and we ought to put together a formal structure.

Where we begin negotiations with Cubans on a whole range of issues, including Alan Gross, but also how we deal with the restrictions on travel, how we deal with the economic embargo and a whole range of things.

But this is a moment I think where we can not only move to release Alan Gross, but we can move to change our entire policies.

O'BRIEN: So let me ask you a question because you said when you had conversations with Raul Castro, he sought to tie Gross's fate to that of the Cuban five. Walk us through, who are the Cuban five and how realistic is that? Are you saying now that he's really being held as a hostage to be swapped for versus someone who's serving time in prison?

MCGOVERN: Well, we have in jail, in U.S. prisons across the country, five Cubans who are allegedly spying, relaying information back to the Cuban government on the activities of Cuban-Americans here in the United States. One of them has a sentence that carries a life term with it.

And what President Castro seemed to say is that, you know, you need to resolve that. These people in his opinion don't deserve to be in jail. We don't believe that Alan Gross ought to be in jail.

But this is - unfortunately, Alan Gross is kind of caught in this web that's a result of this outdated policy that we have toward Cuba, a policy that has failed, a policy that is really a relic from the Cold War.

O'BRIEN: So getting him freed is not going to be as simple as a swap or as difficult as revisiting our Cuba policy, which means that Mr. Gross would not be freed for a long time?

MCGOVERN: Well, my hope is that if we begin kind of a formal negotiation sooner rather than later, we can get Mr. Gross home a lot quicker. But, look, the problem we have with Cuba is not just about Alan Gross, it's a whole range of things.

And so we - I think the time has come for us to re-evaluate our policy. We ought to have a more mature policy. We've got to be thinking about normalizing relations between our two countries, tearing down these barriers that create paranoia, that result in terrible cases like Alan Gross.

He ought to be home and we pressed as hard as we could every Cuban official to say that he should be released, but I think we need to encourage our government to engage in a more formal direct negotiation with the Cubans on a whole range of issues.

This shouldn't just be about Alan Gross. Our problems with Cuba are much more complicated. We need to put everything on the table.

O'BRIEN: Congressman Jim McGovern is a Democrat from Massachusetts. It's nice to talk to you, sir. Thank you.

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