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Why is Jimmy Carter really in Cuba?

Jimmy Carter in Cuba
Former President Jimmy Carter, left, shakes hands with Cuba's Cardinal Jaime Ortega before their meeting in Havana, Cuba, Monday March 28, 2011. AP Photo

Havana - There's a lot of speculation that former U.S. President Jimmy Carter flew into Cuba Monday morning with a hidden agenda--gaining the release of U.S. contractor Alan Gross jailed for more than a year before being sentenced to 15 years in a two day trial for sedition earlier this month.

The rumors were fueled by his first public stop at Havana's Jewish Community Center in the afternoon. But his host, Community President Adela Dworin said Gross wasn't mentioned between them. Speaking to the press as Carter drove off, Dworin said they didn't touch on politics at all, just on the freedom of Jews to openly practice their faith.

A source well-informed on Carter's trip said Cuba officials have told the former president not to get his hopes up on taking Gross out with him when he leaves Wednesday afternoon. Nevertheless, observers say that if anyone can pull off a miracle, Carter can. A Cuban Foreign Ministry official told CBS that the case wasn't closed yet as an appeal process was underway that could take several months. However, it's been suggested that the Gross family would drop its appeal if that would facilitate his release.

There is speculation that Carter is also asking the Cubans for access to Gross, even if he is not released, but that same source, who asked not to be identified because he is not authorized to speak to the press, refused to comment on that. He then hedged his answer by adding, "if there was no truth to it, I would deny it." Observers say Carter is probably still waiting for a response to his request.

Most likely Carter will discuss the case along with how to advance U.S.-Cuba relations with Cuban President Raul Castro, whom Carter is scheduled to meet late Tuesday afternoon. The two are also expected to dine together that evening. The U.S. State Department has declared Gross' imprisonment a major obstacle to any further improvement in bilateral relations. Since coming into the White House, President Obama has eased restrictions on travel to Cuba, particularly for Cuban Americans, and lifted some of the restrictions preventing Cubans, particularly artists and musicians from traveling to the U.S.

In line with his well-known interest in human rights Carter also sat down with Cardinal Jaime Ortega, whose office then issued a press statement saying that the two men spent nearly one hour together. Carter, it says expressed his pleasure at the "process of dialogue between the Church in Cuba and the Government of President Raul Castro...." That dialogue has led to the release of more than one hundred political prisoners.

During a meeting following his arrival Carter told employees and diplomats at the U.S. Interests Section, Washington's lone diplomatic outpost in Cuba, that he would also be seeing former President Fidel Castro during his 48 hour visit to the communist island. The elder Castro, who gave up his public posts in 2006 to his younger brother Raul, hosted Carter in 2002. In May of that year Carter became the first U.S. President--former or otherwise--to travel to the island since Castro's 1959 revolution. The countries still do not have diplomatic relations although both maintain "interests sections" in each other's capitals.