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Sec. Clinton, Cuban govt. spar after Blitzer interview
May 9th, 2012
01:15 PM ET

Sec. Clinton, Cuban govt. spar after Blitzer interview

By CNN's Jennifer Mikell

(CNN) – A top representative of the Castro government is urging the United States to sit down and talk about the fate of an American held prisoner in Cuba who reached out to CNN's Wolf Blitzer.

An international negotiation appears to be playing out in "The Situation Room", where high-level Cuban and U.S. officials are responding to Blitzer's exclusive interview with the jailed contractor, Alan Gross.

Gross used the one phone call the Cuban government allows him each week to contact Blitzer on Friday.

The 63-year-old Maryland contractor has served two-and-a-half years of a 15-year prison sentence in Cuba.

He talked to Blitzer about his life in captivity, his failing health and his 2009 arrest.

Gross and his family say he went to Cuba to link the island's tiny Jewish community to the internet, as part of a U.S.-funded aid program.

The Cuban government thought otherwise, charging Gross with smuggling in illegal equipment and with being a threat to the security and independence of the state.

Gross told Blitzer, "They charged me with smuggling. It's called 'contrabanda.' But that was impossible, because I had permission... I feel like I'm a hostage."

In fact, Gross’s lawyer suggests his client is effectively being held for ransom.

The Cuban government appears to have linked Gross' future to the fate of Cuban agents convicted on spy charges and imprisoned in the United States, known as "The Cuban Five."

The day after Blitzer's interview with Gross, the CNN anchor received a hand-delivered letter from a top Cuban diplomat in Washington, Jorge Balanos.

The letter outlined the Castro government's views on Gross' case, writing "The undercover activities of Mr. Gross in Cuba constitute crimes in many countries, including the United States."

Balanos began the letter saying, "The Cuban government has conveyed to the U.S. its willingness to have a dialogue to find a humanitarian solution to the case of Mr. Gross on a reciprocal basis."

Blitzer says that line in particular, and the full letter from Balanos, clearly suggested to him that Cuba is open to releasing Gross if the U.S. frees members of the Cuban Five.

Blitzer followed up, asking a top Cuban Foreign ministry official what it would take to free Alan Gross.

In a rare interview from Havana, Josefina Vidal told Blitzer that Cuba has "legitimate concerns, humanitarian concerns related to the situation of the Cuban Five." But she says Cuba is "not advancing a specific solution, a specific formula" for the release of Alan Gross. She said that has to be discussed with the U.S. government, and Cuba is waiting for a response from the Obama administration on the matter.

CNN asked Secretary of State Hillary Clinton about the possibility of a prisoner swap with Cuba.

Clinton told CNN's Jill Dougherty "well first of all Mr. Gross should not even be incarcerated in Cuba. Mr. Gross was not a spy, Mr. Gross was not an intelligence agent. So there should be a decision by the Cuban government to release him, and we would like to see that happen as soon as possible."

Clinton didn't directly reject a prisoner swap, but she noted, "we are well aware that the Cuban government wants to see the release of their intelligence agents." She referred to the Cuban Five as "spies who were lawfully arrested, tried and convicted for espionage."

A later statement from the State Department dismissed the idea of holding talks on Gross' fate. Deputy Spokesman Mark Toner wrote, "We reject the suggestion that this is a matter for negotiation. Alan Gross is unjustifiably imprisoned and his case is not related to the Cuban Five. Josefina Vidal's statements only seem to reinforce Alan Gross' view that he is a hostage of the Cuban regime."

In his interview with Blitzer, Gross praised efforts by Secretary of State Clinton and Pres. Obama to win his release.

Several world leaders have taken up the cause of Alan Gross.

Former President Jimmy Carter, U.S. Ambassador and former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson and even Pope Benedict have all visited Cuba within the past year, calling on the government to release Gross.

The Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Patrick Leahy, visited Gross in Cuba and met with Cuban leader Raul Castro.

Blitzer asked Leahy about the possibility that Gross might be freed in a prisoner swap.

Leahy said, "I think you can make the argument that some of the Cubans have reached a point where they've served a long term, should they be returned."

"But I think if you go into it, we'll give you two if you'll give us one, we'll give you three if you give us one, that's a non-starter. We ought to talk first humanitarian. And we ought to talk to the long, bigger issues of relationships between our countries."

In his letter to Blitzer, the Cuban diplomat Jorge Balanos said the cases of Alan Gross and the Cuban Five are very different, arguing that they have endured a "cruel regime of solitary confinement" during nearly 14 years in U.S. prisons.

Blitzer is determined to keep the lines of communication open between the U.S. and Cuba on this important story. Be sure to watch "The Situation Room" for follow-up reports. That's 4-6 p.m. ET, only on CNN.

RELATED VIDEO: Wolf Blitzer's full interview with Josefina Vidal


Filed under: Cuba • Situation Room • Wolf Blitzer
soundoff (15 Responses)
  1. Socialist Worker

    What it comes down to is this. The US gov't will not accept the fact that the Cuban people have made a Socialist Revolution just 90 miles away. They believe that as the mightest empire humanity has ever seen that they have a right to dictate to the rest of the world how they will run their affairs. Time and time again they have organized coups assiinations and wars to see to it that their national security interests are maintained. If they were so interested in "Free Elections" why did they have their man General Batista cancel them? If Batista wasn't their man why did they sell him arms after the coup? Why were the 1956 elections canceled in Southern Vietnam? Why did they have the elected President of Chile overthrown and murdered? How many plots have they had to murder Fidel Castro.

    May 15, 2012 at 10:58 am |
  2. JONRICH

    When are both nations going to realize that only through recognized engagements will these mistrusts going to end?
    It's been 20+ years since the cold war ended and both sides seem to have forgotten that. It's been 67-years since the end of the World War 2 and the European Nations should have thier acts together by now.
    Now is the time for the U.S.A. to realize that it's an American Nation and work toward improving relationships with our American Neighbors; All Of Them..

    May 12, 2012 at 12:39 pm |
  3. John McAuliff

    Alan Gross is a hostage to the policies of both governments.

    But at least the Cubans are willing to sit down for serious negotiation to resolve his situation.

    The US says let him go first and then unspecified good things will happen.

    That requires more trust than the history of US-Cuba relations merits.

    Short of serious negotiation, the US government could help resolve the immediate problem if it 1) acknowledged Gross was legitimately convicted of violation of Cuban law and guaranteed officially that he will return after visiting his mother; or 2) provided medically secure transportation for her to see him in Cuba.

    The US paid Gross $600,000 to undertake covert action in Cuba. Secretary Clinton and President Obama have been badly misinformed by their subordinates and thus have not taken responsibility for the actions of a contract agent. Trash talking Cuba is not serious.

    John McAuliff
    Fund for Reconciliation and Development

    May 11, 2012 at 12:44 pm |
  4. REALITYCHECK

    Along with the swap, the U.S. should also stop it's own hypocrisy and immediately end it's unjustifiable embargo over this country, which has only aided in oppressing the cuban people.

    I wouldn't blame the Cuban government in opening up another mariel boatlift like in the 80s. If the U.S. the wants to continue its' unjustified economic oppressive behavior, than they should have no problem in taking care of the people it affects the most.

    May 10, 2012 at 9:41 am |
  5. REALITYCHECK

    James Klimaski is absolutely right:
    "The press has thus far not told the story about the "Cuban five." They were in the U.S. to monitor activities of groups which were carrying out what the U.S. defines as terrorist activities against Cuba. They identified themselves to the FBI to give them information that these groups were breaking U.S. laws. However, instead of following up on the reports of terrorist activites, we arrested the five Cubans. We arranged a show trial where the U.S. Attorney's Office conducted a huge public relations campaign enlisting members of the press to make it impossible to get a fair trial. They shopped for just the right Federal judge who refused to grant a change of venue and it was all down hill from there."

    May 10, 2012 at 9:23 am |
  6. Manning El Paso, TX

    US should negotiate with Cuba, what treat are now,we have made them pay for many years for the Cuban crises in the 60s. US should help Mr Gross he simply is a US citizen.

    May 9, 2012 at 11:24 pm |
  7. James Klimaski

    The press has thus far not told the story about the "Cuban five." They were in the U.S. to monitor activities of groups which were carrying out what the U.S. defines as terrorist activities against Cuba. They identified themselves to the FBI to give them information that these groups were breaking U.S. laws. However, instead of following up on the reports of terrorist activites, we arrested the five Cubans. We arranged a show trial where the U.S. Attorney's Office conducted a huge public relations campaign enlisting members of the press to make it impossible to get a fair trial. They shopped for just the right Federal judge who refused to grant a change of venue and it was all down hill from there.

    As for Mr. Gross, the U.S. Government was fully aware he would probably be arrested for the activites they hired him to perform in Cuba. And the Cuban Government is correct that if someone came to the U.S. and tried to do the same thing, they would be arrested and tried. It is past time that we should recognize these two cases involve political prisoners and all of them, the Cuban Five and Mr. Gross should be released and sent home. But we know that the Cubans in Miami will not let that happen. Sad.

    May 9, 2012 at 5:55 pm |
  8. EmRo

    Kudos to Mr. Blitzer!

    May 9, 2012 at 5:17 pm |
  9. Nina Fox

    As tragic as it is for this individual and family, the idea of hostage negotiations is very dangerous and ultimately places all Americans at risk as being pawns for a greater purpose. With this said, my sympathy goes out to the individual and his family.

    ~ Nina
    California

    May 9, 2012 at 5:02 pm |
  10. Doug Ericson

    How can a Cuban be a spy? Do we have spies from Greenland and Granada locked up too? Good Lord, give Cuba its 5 secret agents back and let Mr. Gross come home.

    May 9, 2012 at 2:50 pm |
    • Julia F

      Mr. Ericson, Cuba may have severe economic difficulties, but, believe me, it has a very powerful secret service. Sometimes it has been compared to Israel's Mossad. They own their expertise to the Soviet KGB, and specially to old Germany’s Stasi. These five guys were part of a much broader net operating in the US, that was dismantled.

      May 10, 2012 at 10:50 am |
      • Doug Ericson

        Thank you for the reply, ( from Julia F). I accept your premise that the Cuban secret service is powerful and well trained. So what is their agenda as far as the USA is concerned, and how is it harmful to the USA?. Thats the part that I am missing. Doug.

        May 10, 2012 at 8:37 pm |
    • Julia F

      I presume, Doug, that all the information that the Cuban regime managed to collect through the so called Wasp Net not only would serve for its defense plans, but immediately would be shared with its allies in Latin A. and other countries in Africa and the Arab world (remember it was the late 90’s, and Fidel Castro was still in command with relatively wide prestige among the so called Third World). The Cuban Five belonged to the Wasp Net, composed by 16 Cuban agents who had as one of its assignments to spy official American agencies, infiltrate important military installations of the US such as the Southern Command, the Central Command (CENTCOM) in Tampa, responsible for the military activities in the Near East and in south and inside Asia. A couple of years later, the FBI also discovered another spy, Ana Belen Montes, a military analyst working inside the Pentagon for the Cuban regime.

      May 11, 2012 at 7:07 pm |
      • Doug Ericson

        Reply to Julia F. OK, I think I get it now. We are following a policy designed to protect the USA from an attack by Cuba and its allies. Havent we already gone down that road in the sixties. Some prejudices die hard I guess. When a person has been indoctrinated from birth to hate a group of people from a certain country, it is a very powerful thing. Brainwashing is more powerful than Mother Nature herself. I remember in 72 I was hitchhiking in Europe with a couple of friends on a shoe string budget for 3 weeks. One day I met a beautiful young woman from Cuba, in a Museum in Zurich Switzerland. I shied away from an invitation to have coffee with her there. I was afraid of her. It was either the dumbest thing I have ever done or the smartest. What do you think? I was born in the US in 53. Doug.

        May 11, 2012 at 9:16 pm |

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