AP sources: US offered Cuba swap for American
By DESMOND BUTLER and JESSICA GRESKO
WASHINGTON -- The United States offered to let a convicted Cuban spy
return home in exchange for the release of an imprisoned American, but
Cuba rebuffed the offer, U.S. officials said.
The U.S. also indicated it would be willing to address other Cuban
grievances after Havana had released imprisoned contractor Alan Gross,
according to the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because
the sensitivity of the issue.
Cuba rejected the offer, noting that the Cuban, Rene Gonzalez, already
had served most of his sentence. It wanted pardons for at least some of
the four other Cubans convicted with Gonzalez. U.S. officials said they
would not consider pardons.
The December 2009 arrest of Gross, a Maryland native, has aggravated
relations between the United States and Cuba just as the Obama
administration was making tentative movements to ease decades of tension.
Gross was caught bringing prohibited communications equipment into Cuba
while on a democracy program financed by the U.S. Agency for
International Development. In March, he was sentenced to 15 years for
crimes against the state. The United States says Gross was merely trying
to help Cuba's Jewish community communicate with the rest of the world
and should not have faced prosecution.
The Cuban government has long been upset about the fate of Gonzalez and
four other Cubans, known as the "Wasp Network," who were convicted in
2001 of spying on U.S. military installations in South Florida. Cuban
officials say the five were trying to prevent terrorist attacks on the
island by monitoring Cuban exiles.
Gonzalez was released this month after 13 years in prison but a judge
has ordered him to serve three years' probation in the United States
before returning to Cuba.
U.S. officials offered to press a Miami federal court to allow Gonzalez
to finish the parole in Cuba, in exchange for Gross' release. Under the
U.S. proposal, Gonzalez, a dual U.S.-Cuban citizen, would have renounced
his U.S. ties.
The Gross-Gonzalez swap was raised by former New Mexico Gov. Bill
Richardson, as well as by senior U.S. officials in a series of meetings
with Cuban officials. Richardson traveled to Cuba last month seeking
Gross' release. He also told Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez that
the U.S. would be willing to consider other areas of interest to Cuba.
Among them was removing Cuba from the U.S. list of state sponsors of
terrorism; reducing spending on Cuban democracy promotion programs like
the one that led to the hiring of Gross; authorizing U.S. companies to
help Cuba clean up oil spills from planned offshore drilling; improving
postal exchanges; ending a program that makes it easier for Cuban
medical personnel to move to the United States; and licensing the French
company Pernod Ricard to sell Havana Club rum in the United States.
A U.S. official stressed that the offer was only to discuss those issues
after Gross was released, with no guarantees that U.S. policies would
Richardson's initiative blew up after he referred to Gross as a hostage
in an interview and the Cuban government refused to allow him to see
Gross. A person briefed on the trip said tensions also spiked when
Richardson mentioned that the United States had a plane waiting to make
an exchange, if Cuba agreed, a suggestion the Cubans found presumptuous.
Richardson was not immediately reachable for comment Thursday.
U.S. and Cuban officials also discussed the swap on the sidelines of
last month's U.N. General Assembly session, but Rodriguez, the foreign
minister, rejected the offer, pushing for the additional pardons.
In an interview with The Associated Press on Sunday, Cuban Parliament
President Ricardo Alarcon noted that Gonzalez has served most of his
sentence, while Gross has not.
Gonzalez's Miami-based attorney, Phil Horowitz, said neither he nor his
client had been approached by U.S. or Cuban officials or anyone working
on behalf of either government about a possible swap.
"There is no linkage between the two, and there never has been," he
said. "How could you link Alan Gross to a guy who spent 13 years in prison?"
Horowitz said he plans to file a request soon with the Miami court to
allow Gonzalez to complete his probation in Cuba.
Peter Kahn, a lawyer for the Gross family, said the family supports the
State Department's efforts to win Gross' release.
"They continue to be increasingly concerned about Alan's mental and
physical health, as well as their own ability to endure this very
difficult situation much longer," he said.
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