8 in Congress urge Obama to halt talks over Cuba's arrest of contractor

Eight congressional Republicans on Friday alleged the Obama administration is trying to "appease"' the Cuban government after the arrest in Havana of a Washington subcontractor, and called for the cancellation of bilateral migration talks now set for Feb. 19.

"We are greatly concerned about the manner in which the administration is handling the arrest of Alan Gross'' and its impact on the U.S. government's pro-democracy programs in Cuba, they wrote in a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Gross, a Maryland subcontractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), has been jailed in Havana since his Dec. 4 arrest after delivering sophisticated communications equipment to Jewish groups on the island.

The letter to Clinton noted that after Gross' arrest, USAID strongly discouraged recipients of U.S. pro-democracy funds from traveling to Cuba, and that nongovernmental organizations "have been informed that the administration is considering taking democracy assistance funding in a `new direction.'''

"The Cuban government is greatly threatened by the evident progress of the pro-democracy movement and is utilizing the arrest of Mr. Gross to force the United States to cease providing aid to Cuba's independent society,'' the Congress members wrote.

"It appears that the administration has opted to handle Mr. Gross's arrest by trying to appease the Cuban dictatorship,'' they added.

The letter was signed by Florida's Lincoln and Mario Diaz-Balart, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Connie Mack and four other Republicans; Dan Burton and Mike Pence of Indiana, Thaddeus McCotter of Michigan and Todd Tiahrt of Kansas.

They added that USAID has yet to request funding proposals for the Cuba programs for fiscal years 2009 and 1010, ``despite the requirement of the law.'' Several recipients of such funds have complained they are quickly running out of their current allocations from a $40 million fund approved by Congress in 2008.

The letter also noted the State Department confirmed this week that its envoys will hold another round of migration talks with Cuban officials, now scheduled for Feb. 19 in Havana.

"We urge you to suspend all talks with the Cuban dictatorship until Mr. Gross is freed, and that you demand that he be immediately released,'' the lawmakers wrote. "We also respectfully request that you call on USAID to proceed swiftly with the [funding proposals] solicitation process.''

A State Department spokesman said U.S. consular officials in Havana were allowed to visit Gross this week -- the second such visit since his arrest two months ago. But no further details could be released because of privacy laws, the spokesman added.

U.S. government concern over Gross' detention ``is a matter that we've raised with [the Cuban government] on multiple occasion and that we will continue to raise with them,'' the spokesman said, asking for anonymity because of department policies.

The 60-year-old Gross, of Potomac, Md., is a veteran development specialist who has been involved with several programs to provide Internet access to civil society groups around the world.

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