Hopes cool for freedom of American jailed in Cuba
Posted on Thursday, 09.08.11
Hopes cool for freedom of American jailed in Cuba
By PAUL HAVEN and ANNE-MARIE GARCIA
HAVANA — Hopes that a U.S. government subcontractor jailed in Cuba
might soon be freed were dashed when former New Mexico Gov. Bill
Richardson said the Cuban government refused to let him meet with the
In an exclusive interview with The Associated Press, Richardson
described 62-year-old Alan Gross as an "American hostage." He said he
would not leave the island until he was allowed to see him at a military
hospital where he is being held.
"My mission here as a private citizen is to secure the release of Alan
Gross, an American hostage," Richardson said late Thursday. "I've been
informed by the Cuban government that I would not be allowed to see Alan
Gross during my visit."
Richardson said that he had been scheduled to depart Saturday, but that
he told Cuban officials he would not leave until he was granted a
meeting with Gross.
"I promised his wife, Judy, that I would see him," the governor said.
It was not clear whether he had any further meetings scheduled Friday.
There was no immediate comment from Cuba's government, or from Washington.
The news, delivered by a somber Richardson at the end of a long day of
meetings with Cuban officials, was sure to come as a shock to those who
had felt certain Gross' long ordeal was nearing an end.
Gross' lawyer said Wednesday that Richardson came to Havana at the
invitation of the Cuban government, and earlier Thursday a leading Cuban
official praised the governor and described Gross as a "victim."
The case has chilled efforts to improve ties between Washington and
Havana, and the failure of Richardson's visit to win his release would
likely set things back even further.
The State Department said Thursday that President Barack Obama's
administration has been in touch with Richardson.
Richardson, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, has a
working relationship with Cuba's leaders and a long history of winning
the release of prisoners in Cuba and elsewhere. His description of Gross
as a hostage – rather than a prisoner – was sure to rankle Cuban leaders.
Gross was arrested in December 2009 while on a USAID-funded democracy
building program. A Cuban court convicted the Maryland native in March
of crimes against the state for illegally bringing in communications
equipment and sentenced him to 15 years in jail, a decision that was
upheld last month by the country's Supreme Court.
Gross has insisted he was only trying to help Cuba's tiny Jewish
community improve Internet access, and says he had no desire to offend
Cuba's communist government. Cuba says the USAID program was a thinly
veiled attempt to overthrow the government.
In court testimony from March that was released last week by his own
lawyer, Gross described himself as a "trusting fool."
"I was duped. I was used. And my family and I have paid dearly for
this," he told the tribunal.
With the Supreme Court decision, which effectively ended Gross' legal
options, efforts have turned to winning his release on humanitarian grounds.
Those who have met and spoken with him say Gross has lost 100 pounds (45
kilos) while in custody, and both his elderly mother and adult daughter
are suffering from cancer, among other hardships the family has endured.
Richardson was last in Havana in August 2010, when he met with Cuba's
foreign minister and appealed for Gross' release. As a congressman in
1996, Richardson secured the liberation of three island political
prisoners during talks with former Cuban leader Fidel Castro in Havana.
Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter also raised Gross' case at the
highest levels of government during a trip to Havana in March. The
former president was received warmly by Fidel and current Cuban
President Raul Castro and was even allowed to talk with Gross in jail,
but he left empty-handed.
Richardson told the AP that the meeting was denied although Gross had
formally requested it through a U.S. consular official.
It was not clear what Cuban officials would do if Richardson refused to
leave. Physically kicking him out of the country would be public
relations nightmare, particularly given the Democratic politician's
previously strong ties with Cuban leaders.
Earlier Thursday, Cuban Parliament Chief Ricardo Alarcon lauded
Richardson's efforts to improve ties between Washington and Havana,
including advocating freedom for five Cuban agents serving long jail
terms in the United States.
Richardson's effort toward rapprochement "is something legitimate," he said.
"It is something noble. I hope it gets results," Alarcon said.
He insisted, however, that he had no idea whether Richardson would be
allowed to leave the island with Gross.
"I don't know what Bill's program here involves," Alarcon said. "I'm not
a fortune teller."
But Alarcon seemed to signal that Havana's posture toward Gross was
softening, blaming Washington and not him for his actions.
"It is a shame that this gentleman has been a victim of politics," he
said. "They've used him."