By Jeff Franks
HAVANA (Reuters) - A Cuban agent on parole in the United States after 13 years behind bars for his activities in an espionage ring has returned temporarily to the communist island to visit his critically ill brother, state television reported on Friday.
Rene Gonzalez, one of what Cuba calls the "Five Heroes," returned on Friday "on a private family visit," it said.
U.S. District Judge Joan Lenard granted Gonzalez his request for the visit on March 19 with the proviso that he had to obtain permission from the U.S. government and return within 15 days.
Gonzalez's brother is said to be dying of lung cancer.
Similarly, jailed American contractor Alan Gross has requested that Cuban President Raul Castro allow him a temporary return to the United States to visit his 89-year-old mother, who has inoperable lung cancer.
Gonzalez, 55, is one of the so-called Cuban Five convicted of conspiring to spy on Cuban exile groups and U.S. military activities in Florida. Their organization was known as the "Wasp Network."
One of them is serving a double life sentence for his part in the shooting down of two U.S. planes in 1996 flown by an exile group that dropped anti-government leaflets over Havana.
In the United States, the case is little known outside the Cuban exile community, but is a major issue in Cuba where the government repeatedly says they were wrongly convicted and demands their release.
It says the agents were only collecting information on Cuban exile groups planning actions against the island 90 miles from Key West, Florida
Gonzalez, who has dual U.S.-Cuban citizenship, was the first of the five to be released from jail when he finished his sentence last year, but was ordered to stay in the United States for a three-year probation.
WELCOMED BACK TO THE HOMELAND
His U.S. lawyer, Phil Horowitz, assured Lenard in a February hearing he would return from Cuba to complete his probation. He has been living at an undisclosed location in Florida.
"In spite of the conditions imposed, our people, with deep respect, welcomes our dear Rene to the homeland and do not cease in the struggle for his definitive return along with his four close brothers," state television said.
Cuba has hinted at a possible swap of the Cuban Five for Gross, who is serving a 15-year sentence in Cuba for illegally installing Internet networks for Cuban Jewish groups. He was working for a U.S. program that Cuba considers subversive.
The United States has rejected the idea, but Gross' attorney Peter Kahn recently sent a letter to Cuban President Raul Castro requesting that Gross, 62, be allowed to visit his family. His mother has inoperable lung cancer and has taken a turn for the worse, and his daughter has breast cancer.
His wife, Judy Gross, said she was pleased Gonzalez had been allowed to visit his ailing brother in Cuba and hoped her husband would be allowed to travel to Dallas for his mother's 90th birthday on April 15.
"I certainly empathize with his (Gonzalez's) family's suffering," Judy Gross said. "I pray that President Raul Castro will find it in his heart to reciprocate the U.S. gesture and give us a positive answer.
"This is Cuba's chance to show that they are serious about dealing with Alan's case on what they themselves have called a 'reciprocal humanitarian basis.'"
Both the Gross family and the U.S. government asked Pope Benedict to seek his release during his visit this week to Cuba.
A Vatican spokesman said "humanitarian requests" had been made to the Cuban government, but offered no further details.
Gross has been in Cuban custody since December 2009 and his family says he suffers from health problems.
The case has stalled modest progress in U.S.-Cuba relations under U.S. President Barack Obama.
(Editing by Kevin Gray and Todd Eastham)