The Cuban government is “concerned” about the hunger strike declared by Alan Gross, a U.S. government subcontractor jailed in Havana for four years, and it is willing to swap him for three Cuban spies in U.S. prisons, a senior official said Wednesday.
A former top Senate staffer and critic of U.S. Agency for International Development programs in Cuba, meanwhile, claimed that USAID officials torpedoed a deal for Gross’ freedom that Havana had welcomed in 2010.
Josefina Vidal, the Cuban foreign ministry official in charge of relations with the United States, said in a statement that her government was “concerned” with the announcement Tuesday that Gross had stopped eating last week.
“Gross is in good physical condition and his health is normal and stable,” Vidal said, adding that he is imprisoned in a hospital “not because his health requires it but because in that place he can be guaranteed specialized attention by medical personnel.”
Vidal also reiterated Havana’s willingness to “resolve” the Gross case if Washington meets Cuba’s “humanitarian concerns” for the three spies held in U.S. prisons since 1998. Two others completed their sentenced and returned to Cuba.
Cuba says the “Five Heroes” were spying on South Florida exiles who might plan terrorist attacks. The so-called “Wasp Network” also spied on U.S. military activities, and one member was convicted of conspiracy to murder for his role in Cuba’s killing of four Brothers to the Rescue pilots over the Florida Straits in 1996.
The Obama administrations has repeatedly rejected any trade for Gross, who is serving a 15-year sentence for illegally giving Cuban Jews USAID-financed communications equipment to allow them to bypass government controls on access to the Internet.
Gross started the hunger strike after learning that USAID had risked making his situation in Cuba worse by launching a semi-clandestine Twitter-like system just months after his arrest, his U.S. lawyer, Scott Gilbert, said Tuesday.
Cuba has outlawed cooperation with the U.S. government programs as thinly veiled attempts to topple the communist system. USAID says the programs are designed merely to promote democracy, civil society and unhindered communications on the island.
Newsweek meanwhile quoted the former Senate Foreign Relations committee staffer, Fulton Armstrong, as saying that he and a House counterpart had persuaded USAID and the State Department in 2010 to pare back the more “aggressive” Cuba programs as part of an effort to win the release of Gross.
Armstrong added that Cuban officials, told of the approved changes, “responded very positively and said that the cleanup … would certainly help them make the case for expedited procedures for Gross’ release,” the magazine added.
But “die-hard USAID officials” torpedoed the deal, Armstrong told Newsweek. “At that point, the discussions about program reforms to gain Gross’s release ended,” he was quoted as saying.
Newsweek also quoted him as saying that contrary to USAID statements, the Obama administration “had not been briefed on the [USAID’s] regime-change programs, and that the secret operations continued just as they had under Bush-Cheney — aggressive, over-funded, and in obvious need of oversight and review.”
A report in the magazine Foreign Affairs early last year quoted Armstrong as giving a somewhat similar version of efforts to win Gross’ freedom by toning down the Cuba programs. It said Sen. Bob Menendez, a powerful Cuban American Democrat from New Jersey, had persuaded the White House to roll back the program changes.
Armstrong, who has long criticized the Cuban programs as inefficient and wasteful and advocated making them more transparent and respectful of Cuba’s sovereignty, worked in John Kerry’s staff in the senate committee when Kerry, now secretary of state, was a democratic senator from Massachusetts and chaired the panel.
He served as the CIA’s top analyst for Latin America from 2000 to 2004, and as director for Inter American Affairs at the White House’s National Security Council from 1995 to 1997 and again from 1998 to 1999. He retired from the CIA in 2008 and left the Senate committee in 2011.
Kerry told a Senate foreign relations committee hearing Tuesday that the Obama administration is “profoundly involved” in efforts to free Gross and noted that he met with the 64-year-old Maryland man’s family about a month ago.
Kerry said Gross is “unjustly imprisoned” and his treatment has been “inhumane.” Sen. Marco Rubio R-Fla., a committee member, told CNN later that Cuba is holding Gross as a “hostage” to swap with the three spies.