Alan Gross: Castro's prisoner
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    Cuba hits back at Richardson over failed visit

    Posted on Wednesday, 09.14.11

    Cuba hits back at Richardson over failed visit
    Associated Press

    — Cuba accused former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson of
    "blackmail" and slander on Wednesday, denying his claims that he was
    invited to the island to negotiate the release of a jailed American
    government subcontractor.

    In an exclusive interview with the Associated Press, the Foreign
    Ministry's head of North American affairs, Josefina Vidal, said Cuba
    closed the door on Richardson's request to even see imprisoned
    Maryland-native only after the American politician described
    him as a "hostage," in an interview with AP.

    "His request to see the … became impossible due to his
    slanderous statements to the press in which he described as a
    'hostage' of the Cuban government," Vidal said. Richardson made the
    comment last Thursday after he said his demand to see Gross was rebuffed.

    But Vidal said Cuba was already unhappy that word of Richardson's visit
    was leaked to the press even before it had begun.

    "Even before he had met with a single Cuban official the media fallout
    and the speculation had begun," she said. Vidal insisted that no Cuban
    official ever led Richardson to believe he would leave the island with

    "The release of the North American prisoner Alan Gross was never on the
    table," she said, adding that Cuba was caught by surprise when word of
    Richardson's visit was leaked amid news reports that he was coming to
    take Gross home.

    An aide to Richardson who was with the governor on the trip took
    exception to Vidal's account, insisting that the American politician was
    indeed invited to discuss the Gross case.

    "The Cubans are making flimsy excuses only after they personally invited
    Gov. Richardson to discuss the Alan Gross detention and only after they
    inexplicably stonewalled Governor Richardson," Gilbert Gallegos said in
    comments e-mailed to AP late Wednesday. He said Richardson would meet
    with State Department officials and recommend no softening of the U.S.
    position toward the island until Gross is released.

    Gross was sentenced to 15 years in jail for crimes against the state
    after he was caught illegally bringing communications equipment onto the
    island while on a USAID-funded democracy building program. His final
    appeal was denied in August by the country's Supreme Court. Cuba says
    the programs aim to bring down the government; Gross contends he was
    only trying to help the island's tiny Jewish community get access.

    The case has crippled attempts to improve relations between Washington
    and Havana, and destroyed what had been a warm relationship between
    Richardson and Cuban leaders.

    In the past, Richardson has been an outspoken proponent of improved
    relations between the Cold War enemies. But the Democratic politician
    said Tuesday that he was treated so poorly on his visit that he doubted
    he could ever return to the island as a friend.

    The feeling appears to be mutual.

    Vidal said the former governor's behavior amounted to a crude attempt to
    box the Cuban government into a corner.

    "We explained to Mr. Richardson that Cuba is a sovereign country which
    does not accept blackmail, pressure or posturing," she said.

    Richardson is a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations with a long
    history of negotiating the release of prisoners around the world. While
    he stressed that he was here as a private citizen, he said he was in
    close contact with the U.S. State Department.

    A department spokesman, Mark Toner, expressed regret Wednesday at
    Richardson's failure to even see Gross.

    "We're disappointed that he was unable to visit him," Toner told
    reporters. "The fact that the Cuban government refused to permit any
    kind of contact between Gov. Richardson and Mr. Gross is unfortunate,
    and it stands in stark contrast to Gov. Richardson's good-faith effort."

    Toner said the U.S. remained "very concerned" about Gross' welfare.

    "We're going to continue to use every available diplomatic channel to
    try to press for his release," he said.

    Asked whether Richardson brought with him any specific offer from the
    U.S. government of a quid pro quo, Vidal said only that discussions that
    Cuban officials had with Richardson were private and confidential. She
    also would not close the door on any future decision to release Gross on
    humanitarian grounds, though she said she had no knowledge whether one
    was imminent.

    "This is how things work all over the world … When a law is broken
    there is a legal process which must be respected and once the legal
    process ends it is normal that people wait to see if another process can
    start," she said.

    Gross's final appeal was denied by Cuba's Supreme Court in August, and
    since then calls for his release on humanitarian grounds have grown louder.

    Gross's elderly mother and adult daughter are both suffering from
    cancer, his family has had financial troubles since his incarceration,
    and those who have visited him in jail say the previously corpulent man
    has lost over 100 pounds and now appears gaunt and frail.

    On Tuesday, his wife Judy, told the Cuban-related Cafe Fuerte that
    she was extremely worried about her husband.

    "Every time I speak with him, he sounds increasingly depressed and
    anxious to be home," she was quoted as saying. "We are all very worried
    about both his mental and physical . He sounds increasingly
    hopeless; his voice is weaker."

    Vidal took exception to descriptions of Gross as seriously ill, saying
    his health is "normal, in accordance with his age and chronic ailments."

    She said he received close medical attention, as well as regular
    consular visits.