(Adds news conference by Cuban officials, details)
By Daniel Trotta
HAVANA, April 9 (Reuters) - A U.S. contractor who has launched a hunger strike while serving a long prison term in Cuba is receiving “dignified and decent treatment” in a hospital ward where he is in stable health, a Cuban official said on Wednesday.
Cuba’s communist government said it was concerned by a statement from Alan Gross’s lawyer on Tuesday that said his client had begun a hunger strike last week to protest his treatment by both the Cuban and U.S. governments.
Gross, 64, is serving a 15-year prison term for trying to start an illegal Internet service for Cuban Jews while working as a subcontractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Cuba has called it a “subversive program financed by the government of the United States” that used illegal, undercover and noncommercial technology.
“Mr. Gross has received dignified and decent treatment,” Josefina Vidal, Cuba’s chief Foreign Ministry official for U.S. affairs, said in a statement. “Since his detention, he has been held in a hospital, not because his health requires it, but because there he can be guaranteed specialized attention by highly qualified medical and health staff.”
However, Gross’ attorney, Scott Gilbert said that Gross was confined to a small, constantly-lit cell with two other prisoners for 23 hours a day, and that he had lost 10 pounds (4.5 kg) since beginning his hunger strike on April 3, in addition to the 110 pounds he had lost over the previous four years in prison.
U.S.-Cuba relations, marked by more than half a century of hostility, had another setback last week with the revelation that USAID had established after Gross’s arrest a secretive “Cuban Twitter,” called ZunZuneo. Havana saw it as another U.S. attempt to subvert the communist government.
The United States has attempted to use social media to break through Cuba’s state monopoly on newspapers, radio and television. ZunZuneo and at least two other social networks financed by the U.S. government have mostly targeted the roughly 2 million mobile phone users on the island via text messaging, as Cuba has the lowest Internet density in the Western Hemisphere.
Gilbert criticized the United States on Tuesday for further endangering Gross by launching ZunZuneo, and said the revelation of the secretive social media service is what prompted Gross to begin his hunger strike on last Thursday.
Cuba has blamed the United States for Gross’s incarceration and on Wednesday repeated its offer to enter into talks that would also take up the cases of three Cuban agents serving long prison terms in the United States for spying on Cuban exile groups in Florida.
The United States has rejected any trade of the Cuban agents for Gross, and no formal talks have taken place.
Officials with the state telecommunications monopoly ETECSA and the Communications Ministry told a news conference on Wednesday that ZunZuneo and other social networks financed by the U.S. government violated numerous international regulations regarding spam and the use and collection of user data.
Cuba would not let the U.S. campaigns impede their plans to greatly improve access to broadband Internet service, said Carlos del Porto Blanco, a Communications Ministry official, while recognizing Cuba’s future Internet users would be susceptible to any number of commercial and political offensives. (Reporting by Daniel Trotta; editing by G Crosse, David Adams and Peter Galloway)