Alan Gross: Castro's prisoner
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    Deal between U.S., Cuba culminated 18 months of secret talks

    Deal between U.S., Cuba culminated 18 months of secret talks
    12/17/2014 10:34 PM 12/18/2014 12:40 AM

    During a 2007 campaign debate when his White House prospects still
    seemed mostly like a pipe dream, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois was asked
    if, as president, he would sit down to talk to with leaders of countries
    like North Korea, Venezuela, Iran and Cuba. “I would,” he bluntly replied.

    On Tuesday night, seven years later, President Obama finally carried out
    at least part of the pledge of Candidate Obama, talking with Cuban
    leader Raul Castro for 45 minutes by phone to put the finishing touches
    on 18 months of secret negotiations that restored diplomatic relations
    between the two countries for the first time in over five decades.

    The process was carried out under an extraordinarily effective shroud of
    secrecy. “I hadn’t heard even the tiniest buzz that anything was up,”
    one senior State Department official who follows Latin American affairs
    confessed Wednesday after the president’s announcement.

    In the clamor for the details of the agreement, which ranges from the
    number of cigars American visitors can bring home from Cuba to a spy
    swap involving a convicted murderer and a mysterious and unnamed CIA
    agent, relatively little has emerged about the negotiating process.

    But interviews and statements throughout the day by officials in
    Washington, Havana and countries that lent aid to the process offer at
    least a glimpse of the road that led to the historic agreement.

    Cuba seemed to drop off President Obama’s radar during his first term in
    office, aside from his occasional public complaint about the arrest of
    USAID official Alan Gross, charged with crimes against the Cuban state
    for distributing satellite phones to the island’s Jewish community.

    But White House officials said Obama ordered a top-to-bottom review of
    U.S. policy toward Cuba after winning reelection in 2012. By June of
    2013, talks between the two countries were under way, led on the U.S.
    side by Ben Rhodes, the president’s deputy national security for
    strategic communications, and Ricardo Zúñiga, National Security Council
    senior director for the Western Hemisphere.

    At least seven meetings took place in Canada. “I don’t want to
    exaggerate Canada’s role,” Prime Minister Stephen Harper told the
    Canadian Broadcasting Corp. “We facilitated places where the two
    countries could have a dialogue and explore ways on normalizing
    relations. We were not trying in any way to direct or mediate the talks.
    We just wanted to make sure they had the opportunity to have the kind of
    dialogue they needed to have.”

    But the host of two other meetings played a more active role. The
    Argentine-born Pope Francis not only welcomed the negotiating teams to
    the Vatican, he issued an extraordinary “personal appeal” for better
    relations in personal letters sent to Obama and Castro after a meeting
    last spring.

    Their reaction was positive enough to schedule another meeting at the
    Vatican, where the deal was sealed. “The Holy See received delegations
    of the two countries in the Vatican last October,” said a a Vatican
    statement issued Wednesday, “and provided its good offices to facilitate
    a constructive dialogue on delicate matters, resulting in solutions
    acceptable to both parties.”

    Both leaders thanked the pope Wednesday. He “played a very important
    role,” Obama told ABC News, calling Francis “the real deal, a remarkable

    Much remains unknown about the talks, including who negotiated for the
    Cubans and whether they were carried out with the blessing of Raul’s
    88-year-old brother Fidel, who ran the country for 50 years until his
    retirement in 2008.

    The irascible Fidel torpedoed several attempts at rapprochement between
    the United States and Cuba during his rule, notably by sending troops to
    Africa in the midst of negotiations with President Ford’s secretary of
    state, Henry Kissinger, in the mid-1970s and unleashing a wave of
    100,000 refugees on Florida in 1980, soon after President Carter
    restored partial relations between the two countries.

    The ill health that forced Fidel to step down has continued to take a
    toll, and the extent of his influence on the Cuban government and even
    the degree of his lucidity these days is unknown. Cuba watchers are
    waiting to see if he makes a statement about the agreement with the
    United States.

    “If Fidel does not come out and endorse this fully, you’ve got to wonder
    what’s going on,” said Brian Latell, a senior research associate at the
    University of Miami’s Institute for Cuban and Cuban American Studies and
    formerly the CIA’s top Cuba expert. “Is this being done over his
    objections? Or is he completely comatose?”

    Also shrouded in mystery: the identity of a spy being freed by Havana as
    part of the agreement. “We have decided to release and send back to the
    United States a spy of Cuban origin who was working for that nation,”
    Raul Castro said during his televised announcement of the deal Wednesday.

    “We recovered a highly valued intelligence asset, probably the most
    highly valued intelligence asset on Cuban soil in American history,”
    confirmed White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest at a news briefing
    Wednesday. “And that individual is now on American soil.”

    A statement released by the office of National Intelligence Director
    James Clapper said the spy “provided the information that led to the
    identification and conviction” of the so-called Wasp Network, the ring
    of Cuban intelligence officers arrested in South Florida in 1998. (Three
    convicted members of the Wasp Network were released by Washington
    Wednesday, the other half of the swap.)

    His information also helped identify three other Cuban spies in the
    United States: Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) senior analyst Ana
    Belen Montes, former Department of State official Walter Kendall Myers
    and his spouse Gwendolyn Myers.

    Those clues led some retired U.S. intelligence officials to speculate
    that the man released Wednesday by Havana is 51-year-old Rolando
    Sarraff, a former Cuban intelligence agent arrested by the Castro
    government in November 1995.

    “He’s the only one who really fits those details,” said Chris Simms, a
    former Defense Intelligence Agency spycatcher who specialized in Cuba.

    Former intelligence officials say Sarraff was a cryptography expert for
    Cuba’s Interior Ministry who, with two others, passed huge amounts of
    information to the CIA that allowed Washington to break Cuban spy codes,
    read their reports, and identify and arrest them. “He just destroyed
    their communications,” Simms said.

    But Sarraff and two other men helping him eventually fell under
    suspicion. Noting Cuban government surveillance, they sent a message
    asking the CIA to rescue them. Two of the men were extracted from Cuba.
    (One, José Cohen, lives in South Florida, where he’s a top Amway
    salesman. He did not respond to Herald emails asking for comment. The
    other has never been publicly identified.)

    Sarraff, however, was arrested and has been in prison ever since. “And
    at Cuban intelligence headquarters in Havana, a film of those guys
    leaving the message for the CIA to come to the rescue has been used in
    training ever since,” said Simmons.

    Source: Deal between U.S., Cuba culminated 18 months of secret talks |
    The Miami Herald –