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In Cuba, a U.S. government contractor has been held in prison without formal charges for more than three months. Cuban authorities say he's a spy, but American officials insist he was just doing development work. The incident has soured the Obama administration's cautious outreach to Cuba. It's also left a trail of questions about the contractor and the program that he worked for.

Nick Miroff reports from Havana.

NICK MIROFF: Alan Gross was at the airport preparing to leave Havana on December 4th when Cuban security agents arrested him. Since then, the 60-year-old Maryland resident has been locked up in Villa Marista, a high-security prison. Gloria Berbena is a State Department official at the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana.

Ms. GLORIA BERBENA (Spokeswoman, US Interests Section in Havana): We take every opportunity to raise the issue with the Cuban government. So far, since his detention, we've been given two visits. We continue to press for regular access to ensure that he's well and that this process is moving forward.

MIROFF: Barbena wouldnt say much more about Gross's case, citing privacy restrictions. But Gross's friends and family have described him as a global do-gooder, not a spy. They're worried about his health, saying hes lost 52 pounds since his arrest. American officials don't have a lot of bargaining leverage, though.

Ms. BERBENA: Mr. Gross should be released immediately on humanitarian grounds. We are very concerned about his welfare and we're pressing for continued consul access to him, to ensure that he's being well treated.

NORRIS: Gross entered Cuba on a tourist visa, but he was here to do a job. His employer, Development Alternatives Incorporated, was under contract from the U.S. Agency for International Development to help Cuban dissident groups and promote democratic values.

Gross was handing out satellite equipment prohibited by the Cuban government. His company says it was meant to help members of the island's Jewish community connect to the Internet.

Ms. ADELA DWORIN (President, Patronato Temple): This is kosher wine and here you have matzos. The matzos come from Israel. It's native matzos.

NORRIS: Adela Dworin is the president of Cuba's Patronato Temple, the largest of Havana's three synagogues. Its basement was stacked with boxes of kosher foods sent from Canada to help Cuba's 550 Jewish families celebrate Passover. Prior to his arrest, Dworin said she'd never heard of Gross and she didnt want to talk about his case on tape. But she said the synagogue does have computers with Web access.

Ms. DWORIN: We have Internet. I don't have Internet at home, but we have Internet in the Jewish community. And we have email. And it's very easy for us to be in touch with the rest of the world.

NORRIS: At Havana's other synagogues, staff members also said they'd never heard of Gross. Then again, there is little incentive for anyone here to admit they knew him. Cuba's leaders have said the jailed American is under investigation for spying and that he'd committed serious crimes. The island's state-run media have said little else, and Castro government officials declined to comment for this story.

Jean Guy Allard is a Canadian-born reporter who works for Cuba's Communist Party newspaper "Granma."

Mr. JEAN GUY ALLARD (Reporter, "Granma"): I can certainly say that Cubans are fed up with the activities of the USAID, the National Endowment for Democracy, any of those inventions of the U.S. They just won't accept forever what the U.S. wouldn't accept on their own territory.

MIROFF: Gross's arrest is now a major obstacle to any U.S. negotiations with Cuba. Some speculate that Cuba may use him to pressure Washington over the Cuban Five, a group of Cuban intelligence agents serving long sentences in U.S. prisons. Elizardo Sanchez is a human rights activist who says he spent 14 months locked in a grim, windowless cell at the same prison where Gross is now held.

Mr. ELIZARDO SANCHEZ: (Foreign language spoken)

MIROFF: Sanchez says the Castro brothers don't really want normalization with Washington. He thinks they'd rather have the tensions of the Cold War continue. He says the Cuban government maneuvers through these situations like a fish in the water. USAID's Cuba program is now under review. Experts have asked why such a program that operates openly in the U.S. would try to act covertly in Cuba, at great risk to its personnel.

For NPR News, Im Nick Miroff in Havana.

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