TODAY | December 01, 2012
>>> the freedom of one american jailed in cuba for years could depend on whether the u.s. and cuba will agree to a prisoner swap.
>> reporter: cuba and the u.s. are locked in a cold war standoff this weekend with the fate of an american contractor hanging in the balance . it could be the setting for a gripping spy thriller . swapping american alan gross, jailed in havana, for five cubans imprisoned in the united states .
>> he's a very strong personality, and thank god, because i think that's gotten him through a lot of this.
>> he is an extremely noble person. he is sincere. he is honest.
>> it's a political stalemate that has washington and havana on edge. in this military hospital , american contractor alan gross has been imprisoned for the past three years, convicted of smuggling sophisticated satellite equipment to this country's tiny jewish community . but gross says he was only trying to bring internet access to cuba . now he's been sentenced to 50 years for acts against the state and he's lost over 100 pounds.
>> he feels like a solar left in the field to die.
>> reporter: his family this weekend is launching a public relations campaign demanding his freedom. this top cuban official tells nbc news that his country is willing to talk to washington about releasing gross.
>> we appreciate that there are human concerns. nobody enjoys life in prison .
>> reporter: but for the cubans, there's a catch. they want president obama to release five cuban agents convicted in 2001 of running a spy ring in south florida . the secret agents were dispatched.
>> cuba doesn't have the drones to neutralize the terrorists abroad. they need to send people to gather information.
>> reporter: this cuban ringleader is in a california federal prison . in an exclusive jailhouse interview, hernandez admits breaking some u.s. laws --
>> we came here with fake passports, fake identities.
>> reporter: but he denies the most serious charge, conspiracy to commit murder by helping the cuban military shoot down two small vehicles. that's put him behind bars for life. leaving behind in cuba his wife, praying for any solution to end their 14-year separation. but freedom for the cuban five would inflame florida's cuban community. caught in the middle , alan and judy gross.
>> send alan home. let him go. you've had him for three years.
>> reporter: u.s. officials told nbc news that alan gross cannot be compared in anyway to the cuban five, who they insist had a fair trial and were convicted of serious crimes.