Americans and Cubans Still Mired in Distrust
Americans and Cubans Still Mired in Distrust
By DAMIEN CAVE
Published: September 15, 2011
MEXICO CITY — Bill Richardson had chits to offer Cuban officials in
Havana this week if they released Alan Gross, the American contractor
serving a 15-year sentence for distributing satellite telephone equipment.
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Enrique De La Osa/Reuters
Bill Richardson talked with reporters in Havana this week after failed
talks to secure the release of an American contractor.
Mr. Richardson, who has negotiated prisoner releases from Cuba to North
Korea, had State Department approval to present at least two things,
said four people with knowledge of the negotiations. One was a process
for removing Cuba from the list of states sponsoring terrorism. The
Obama administration was also willing to waive probation for one of the
"Cuban Five," as a group of Cuban agents accused of espionage in the
United States are known on the island, so he could go home after he
leaves prison next month.
But it was not enough. Mr. Richardson was not even allowed to see Mr.
Gross, and when he left Havana on Wednesday, he was angry and
disappointed, concluding that elements of the Cuban government "do not
seem to really want warmer relations."
That brand of bitterness is once again the modus operandi for United
States-Cuba relations. American officials and experts say that Mr.
Richardson's failed trip was just the latest in a series of
misunderstandings, missteps and perceived slights showing that both
countries, after a moment of warmth, have slipped back into a
50-year-old pattern of cold distrust.
"Neither side has shown the slightest interest in learning from
experience and have demonstrated repeatedly the tragic way in which both
sides are condemned to repeat their mistakes," said Robert A. Pastor, a
professor at American University who advises former President Jimmy
Carter on Latin America. "It's not just the Obama people. It's the new
people under Raúl Castro."
This is not what either side expected. President Obama campaigned for
greater engagement with Cuba, boldly telling a Miami audience in May
2008 that he would be open to meeting with Mr. Castro and forging warmer
relations. Four months after he took office, he headed in that
direction, abandoning longstanding restrictions on the ability of
Cuban-Americans to visit the island and send money to relatives.
The Cuban government responded quickly. Meetings with American officials
became more common during the first year of the Obama administration,
including a gathering in Havana with the highest-ranking State
Department official to visit Cuba since 2002. Cuba also eliminated a 10
percent tax on remittances that had galled Cuban-Americans sending money
to their families.
But the Gross affair cast doubt into the relationship. A contractor for
a company financed by the United States Agency for International
Development, Mr. Gross was arrested in December 2009. Cuba charged him
with crimes against the state for delivering banned equipment as part of
a semicovert program aimed at weakening the Cuban government.
The arrest sent a chill through the diplomatic corps of both countries.
The Cuban government has complained for years about "democracy programs"
it says subvert its authority and sovereignty. Still, American officials
said they did not expect a protracted affair. Indeed, relations were
still good enough a month later to lay the groundwork for what some
officials now see as a lost opportunity — a jointly run medical clinic
The idea emerged soon after the earthquake that flattened Haiti's
capital, Port-au-Prince, in January 2010. Cuba quickly approved an
American request to fly victims to Florida through Cuban airspace, and
the country's doctors won accolades from American officials.
That led to the idea for a more formal relationship and a new hospital
for rural Haiti — in an area later ravaged by cholera. It was to be
built and supplied with American aid, but staffed with Cuban doctors.
According to current and former American officials, discussions moved
smoothly over several months and were nearly complete when old
"First the Cubans said, 'We want to do this but you have to stop your
efforts to recruit our medical brigades,' " said one American official
who was not authorized to speak publicly. The Cubans were angered by a
little-known program, started by President George W. Bush and continued
by Mr. Obama, that assists Cuban doctors looking to defect, said several
Then, after the Obama administration signaled that it would not
eliminate the program, Cuban officials were further incensed by an event
at which they believed their country's doctors were not given proper
credit for their work in Haiti. Finally, just days before the agreement
was to be signed, the Cuban government demanded that a second clinic be
built in Port-au-Prince, at a cost of several million dollars. That
killed the deal.
And from there, the relationship has continued to wither.
American officials say the Cubans missed an opportunity this year, when
the White House and Senator John Kerry pushed to cut money for the
democracy programs. If Cuba had released Mr. Gross then, officials said,
the programs would have become less about weakening Cuba's government
and more about building civil society. Instead, Congress kept them
For some time now, American officials said, Cuba has seemed uninterested
in letting Mr. Gross go. The island of 11 million people is in the midst
of its largest economic overhaul since the end of the Soviet Union —
with a major drive toward private enterprise — and many Cuba experts
believe that the country's officials are engaged in an ideological war
over how far and fast to go. Relations with the United States appear to
have become secondary to domestic concerns, some argue. Or, they say,
hard-liners seem to be winning the argument on foreign relations.
So while Mr. Richardson traveled with encouragement from the State
Department, on what was officially labeled a private trip, several
government officials said they were not surprised that his effort failed.
Mr. Richardson said that he had been invited, and that he had expected
at least a meeting with Mr. Gross. Josefina Vidal Ferreiro, the Cuban
Foreign Ministry's head of North American affairs, said Mr. Richardson
had gone to Cuba "on his own initiative." She did not discuss the
broader strain in relations. But signaling that removal from the
terrorism list and a minor change in the sentence of an accused Cuban
spy was not sufficient, she said the release of Mr. Gross "was never on
And it may not be anytime soon.
One thing that might move Cuba, said an official who has negotiated the
issue, is if the European Union changes its common policy limiting
relations with Cuba because of human rights concerns. But he and other
American officials said that until Cuba released Mr. Gross, Cuba would
continue to be isolated. For now, his release — along with many issues
involving Cuba — appears to be caught in an echo chamber of grievance
shaped by decades of failed attempts at warmer United States-Cuba relations.