Sen. John Kerry, nominated as the next secretary of state, held a secret meeting with Cubas foreign minister in 2010 in a failed bid to win the release of jailed USAID subcontractor Alan Gross, according to a published report.
A senior state department official also met in secret with Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez to discuss the Gross case, but the foreign minister lectured the U.S. official for an hour, added the report in the respected magazine Foreign Affairs.
José Cardenas, a former top official at the U.S. Agency for International Development, wrote that the article amounted to a lesson on the folly of attempting to appease dictators.
A knowledgeable Senate aide also challenged the articles description of the role that Fulton Armstrong, a senior staffer in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and former CIA analyst, played in the campaign to free Gross.
Gross was arrested in Havana in late 2009 and sentenced to 15 years for giving Cuban Jews sophisticated communications equipment paid for by USAIDs pro-democracy programs, outlawed by Cuba as designed to bring about regime change. His continued detention has been a key block in efforts to improve U.S.-Cuba relations.
The report authored by R.M Schneiderman, an editor at Newsweek, includes previously unknown details of a U.S. effort to win Gross freedom by cutting back funding for the pro-democracy programs and making them less provocative to Cuba.
In September of 2010, Spanish government officials helped arrange a secret meeting between then-Assistant Secretary of State Arturo Valenzuela and Rodríguez to discuss a possible release of Gross, according to Schneiderman.
The Cubans were far less flexible than the Americans expected. The U.S. wanted Cuba to release Gross, and only then would it press ahead on any other policy changes, he wrote. Rodríguez allegedly lectured Valenzuela for roughly an hour on Cubas history of grievances.
A month later, at the request of Cuban diplomats in Washington and with State Department approval, Kerry met with Rodríguez at the home of Cubas ambassador to the United Nations in New York, according to the report.
There was no quid pro quo, but the meeting seemed to reassure the Cubans that the democracy programs would change, and the Cubans expressed confidence that Gross would be freed after his trial, which was held in March of 2011, the report noted.
President Barack Obama has nominated Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat and backer of improving relations with Cuba, to succeed Hillary Clinton. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which Kerry chairs, is expected to easily approve the nomination.
Schneiderman wrote that in early 2010, the State Department and USAID asked Armstrong, who had long criticized the programs as inefficient and wasteful, to help them make the programs less offensive to Havana hoping Cuba might then free Gross.
And that summer, at States behest, Armstrong began meeting with officials at the Cuban diplomatic mission in Washington to tell them about the changes that were being made to the programs, Schneiderman wrote.
We said, Look, message received, he quoted Armstrong as saying. These [programs] are stupid. Were cleaning them up. Just give us time, because politically we cant kill them. The Cubans seemed appreciative. We asked them, Will this help you release Alan Gross? Armstrong went on. And the answer was yes.