* Alan Gross detention a hurdle to warmer U.S.-Cuba ties
* Not clear if visit signals case closer to resolution
* Catholic Church helped arrange wife’s trip in August
By Jeff Franks
HAVANA, Sept 23 (Reuters) - The wife of an American contractor detained in communist Cuba on suspicion of espionage was allowed to visit her husband last month in the first movement in a case that is complicating U.S.-Cuba relations, sources close to the case said this week.
Few details of the mid-August meeting between Alan Gross and his wife Judy were available. It was not immediately clear whether it meant the sensitive case was closer to resolution.
The trip by Judy Gross was arranged with the help of the Roman Catholic Church, whose leader in Cuba, Cardinal Jaime Ortega, has made recent visits to Washington and met with members of the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama, said the sources, none of whom wanted to be named.
The couple reportedly spent time together at the beach in their first meeting since his arrest at Havana airport in early December. Gross, 61, who has not been formally charged, worked for a Washington-area company contracted under a U.S.-funded program to promote democracy in Cuba.
Cuban officials including President Raul Castro have said he was distributing satellite communications equipment to government opponents and hinted at his involvement in espionage. Washington has denied he was spying.
A spokesman for the Catholic Church in Cuba declined to comment on the Judy Gross visit and a spokeswoman at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana referred questions to the Gross family and lawyers, who could not be reached.
The Cuban government, which has said they are still investigating Gross, had no immediate comment.
The United States has said Gross was setting up Internet services for Jewish groups in Cuba, but admitted he entered the country on a tourist visa without declaring his intentions.
Gross’ arrest brought to a halt a slight warming in U.S.-Cuba ties. U.S. officials have said there would be no major initiatives with Havana as long as he remains in jail.
Before that, Obama had taken modest steps to ease the longstanding U.S. trade embargo on Cuba while at the same time insisting the embargo would stay in place until Cuba improved its human rights and released political prisoners.
With intervention from Cardinal Ortega, Cuba announced this summer it would release 52 political prisoners by November. So far, 32 have been freed to Spain.
There has been speculation, denied by Washington, that the two governments might consider swapping Gross for five Cuban intelligence agents jailed in the United States since 1998.
The agents, known in Cuba as the “Five Heroes,” were given long prison sentences for links to the 1996 shootdown by Cuban military jets of two small planes flown by members of the anti-Castro group Brothers to the Rescue, based in Florida.
The four men in the planes, who had flown over Havana and dropped anti-government leaflets, were killed.
Jose Pertierra, a U.S.-based lawyer with close ties to Cuba, said it was unlikely Gross would be freed soon without Cuba getting something in return. The Cubans would most want the release of the five agents and an end to the U.S. pro-democracy programs that sent Gross to the island, he said.
“From Cuba’s perspective, he was in violation of Cuban laws and he was part of an American war against Cuba, so there’s every reason to keep him in jail,” Pertierra told Reuters.
He also accused the U.S. government of “cruel and unusual punishment” because, while Cuba allowed Judy Gross to see Alan Gross, the U.S. has never let the wives of two of the Cuban agents visit their husbands in U.S. prison.
U.S. officials have said the women were denied visits because they too were involved with Cuba’s spy services. (Reporting by Jeff Franks; Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Anthony Boadle)