HAVANA (Reuters) - Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, returning to Cuba for the first time since a groundbreaking 2002 trip, will start a three-day visit on Monday to discuss troubled U.S.-Cuba relations and the fate of imprisoned U.S. aid contractor Alan Gross.
Although just 90 miles (145 km) of water separate the two Cold War enemies, Carter, 86, is the only U.S. president, former or sitting, to visit the communist-ruled island since a 1959 revolution toppled a U.S.-backed dictator and put Fidel Castro in power.
He and his wife, Rosalynn, were scheduled to arrive at Havana's Jose Marti International Airport at 10:50 a.m. EDT (3:50 p.m. British time), then meet with Cuba's Jewish community and Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Havana.
Castro, 84, welcomed Carter at the airport on his 2002 visit, but he stepped down as president three years ago after surgery and was succeeded by brother Raul Castro, 79.
It was not known if the younger Castro would greet Carter this time, but they will meet for talks on Tuesday afternoon.
The Carter Centre in Atlanta said the trip was a "private, non-governmental mission" for Carter to learn about Cuba's new economic policies and talk about ways to improve U.S.-Cuba relations that have gone cold after a brief warming under U.S. President Barack Obama.
Cuba is preparing for a Communist Party congress in mid-April to approve reforms to the island's Soviet-style economy.
Carter is expected to discuss the release of Gross, 61, who was put on trial this month and sentenced to 15 years in prison for providing illegal Internet access to Cuban dissidents.
Carter may only try to lay the groundwork for Gross' release because Cuban officials reportedly have told him not to expect to take Gross home with him when he leaves on Wednesday.
Gross, jailed since his arrest in Havana on December 3, 2009, was working under a U.S. program promoting political change on the island, which Cuba views as subversive.
The case has angered the U.S. government, which contends Gross was in Cuba only to provide Internet access to Jewish groups and committed no crime.
Many think Cuba may be open to freeing Gross soon because it has made its point about the U.S. pro-democracy programs and because of humanitarian concerns.
Gross' 26-year-old daughter and 88-year-old mother are both suffering from cancer.
Gross has the right to appeal his conviction to Cuba's highest court, but it is not known if an appeal has been filed.
During his one term in office from 1977 to 1981, Carter took the most significant steps yet to improve U.S.-Cuba relations. In his 2002 visit, he urged Washington to end its long trade embargo against Cuba. He also called for democracy and better human rights in Cuba, and boosted dissidents by publicly mentioning their movement.
The Castros complain regularly that Obama has done little to help relations, despite his stated desire to seek a "new beginning" with Cuba.
Obama has eased U.S. travel restrictions to Cuba, allowed a free flow of remittances to the cash-strapped island and initiated new talks on migration and postal service issues.
Cuba has released most of its political prisoners and is modernizing its economy, but Obama has said it must do more, including the release of Gross, if it wants better relations.
Editing by Peter Cooney