Friday, September 16, 2011

Richardson Erred in Strategy to Secure Release of Jailed American in Havana

Former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson returned to the US from Havana on Wednesday (September 14) after leaving Cuba empty handed in his widely publicized effort to persuade Cuban officials to release American citizen Alan Gross, 62, who is serving a 15-year sentence for serious crimes against the Cuban state.

Havana said Wednesday it refused to let former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson see jailed American Alan Gross during a recent visit to the island because it was irked at some of his actions. Conversely, Richardson's position is that he was invited to Havana by the Cuban government, albeit a private visit, in the hopes of securing Gross' release on humanitarian grounds.

In leaving Havana without seeing Gross, Richardson said "My conclusion is that maybe the Cuban government has decided that it does not want better relations with the US." He added: "Maybe that is the message they are sending to a friend, or maybe now an ex-friend."

COMMENT: One of Richardson's first missteps was drowning his high expectations of securing Gross' release even before he was able to cultivate some rapport with Cuban officials by phone, skype or video-conferencing, which he easily could have done given his fluency in Spanish.

The second mistake Governor Richardson made was his assumption that the basis of Gross' imprisonment was one that the US could easily defend. That may well be debatable considering that Gross reportedly was in Cuba under the auspices of a US Agency for International Development contract aimed at promoting democracy.

Subsequently, Gross was arrested in December 2009 for allegedly attempting to distribute illegal communications equipment. In March, he was convicted of crimes against the communist state. Gross' claim was that he was attempting to help the small Jewish community on the island to gain access to the Internet. In August, Cuba's Supreme Court upheld Gross' 15-year prison sentence.

According to the Cuban government, Havana was particularly annoyed at Richardson continued description of Gross as a "hostage."

One reason why the US often gets itself into no-win situations internationally is because it often views the world from the US point of view, not a foreign government's point of view. Rightly or wrongly, it was Gross who went to Cuba and who attempted to offer Cuban citizens access to the Internet, which is almost always going to get someone into trouble, given Cuba's contemporary political track-record.

Clearly, Mr. Gross is not in a good place. His health is deteriorating, which is why he is currently in a Cuban hospital. Additionally, his wife back home is fighting cancer, as is one of his daughters.

Worse, the US Department of State has made clear that there can be no further improvement in relations with Cuba until Mr Gross is released.

The Cuban government has also said in a statement that Richardson had exercised extensive pressure on the Cuban government into letting him see Gross, which made it impossible for the visit to occur. "Mr. Richardson was reminded that Cuba is a sovereign country that does not accept blackmail, pressure or arrogance," said the statement from Josefina Vidal, the Foreign Ministry's director of North American affairs. Despite Richardson's assertion that he had been invited to Cuba to discuss the Gross case, Vidal stressed that Richardson had never been invited to visit to Cuba for such purposes. Ms. Vidal also noted that Richardson's media blitz before ever arriving in Cuba rendered the possibility of Richardson leaving the island with Gross very unlikely.

Although it is regretful that Mr. Gross is in the predicament that he finds himself, particularly in view of his health problems and those of his wife and daughter, Richardson's rhetoric and failure to communicate with senior Cuban officials rather than making pronouncements in the media have not been helpful to Gross' plight.

I continue to be puzzled why the US has had diplomatic relations with Vietnam since 1995, yet Washington persists in not having similar relations with Cuba. Presumably, it all boils down to votes from Cuban exiles. Nevertheless, in the meantime US business continues to be the loser, as European and Canadian companies benefit from trade to Cuba.

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