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Sen. John Kerry reportedly met with Cuban officials over Alan Gross

Sen. John Kerry, nominated as the next secretary of state, held a secret meeting with Cuba’s 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 article’s 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 USAID’s “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 Cuba’s 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 Cuba’s 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 State’s 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. We’re cleaning them up. Just give us time, because politically we can’t kill them.’” The Cubans seemed appreciative. “We asked them, ‘Will this help you release Alan Gross?’ ” Armstrong went on. “And the answer was yes.’”

But Sen. Bob Menendez, a powerful Cuban American Democrat from New Jersey, stepped in to defend the programs in the spring of 2011 and persuaded the White House to roll back most of the changes, Schneiderman wrote.

Havana grew chary at the same time, he added, as Raúl Castro faced domestic opposition to his economic reforms and a U.S. jury acquitted Luis Posada Carriles, a Cuban exile blamed for several Havana bombings, of lying to U.S. immigration officials.

“Mired in mistrust and miscalculation, each side seemed to be waiting for the other to blink,” he wrote. “Eventually, however, the United States appeared to step back from an opportunity to free Gross from jail and strike a blow against the antiquated politics of the Cold War The Cuban-American lobby had won.”

Schneiderman’s article drew harsh criticisms from those who favor the USAID programs like Cardenas, a Cuban American who was the agency’s deputy assistant administrator during the George W. Bush administration.

The article showed “the heroic efforts of some Obama administration officials to give the Castro regime everything it wanted” for Gross, he wrote in a column published in several Web sites. “Offering to gut a democracy program because a dictatorship opposes it sends a terrible message to authoritarian regimes around the globe.”

Cardenas also described Armstrong as “an unabashed promoter of U.S.-Cuba normalization” and added, “Let’s hope this Fulton Armstrong-led fiasco puts an end to any more appeasement attempts.”

Armstrong was the CIA’s top Latin America analyst 2000-2004, was assigned to the Clinton White House and later to NATO in Europe. A colleague at the Pentagon, Cuba analyst Ana Belén Montes, was arrested in 2001 for spying for Havana and is now serving a 25-year sentence.

After retiring from the CIA in 2008 he became a senior staffer at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and left in 2011 to become a senior fellow at American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies in Washington. He did not return an El Nuevo Herald email requesting an interview for this story.

A senior Senate Republican aide with first-hand knowledge of USAID’s Cuba programs meanwhile said that Schneiderman exaggerated the role Armstrong played in the effort to win Gross’s release in 2010 and 2011.

“My talks with DOS [Department of State] yielded the contrary, that DOS was annoyed at Fulton, wanted him to butt out,” the aide, who asked for anonymity because he was not authorized to comment, wrote in an email to El Nuevo Herald.

“His efforts actually made it harder ... for the DOS to get Gross out, because Fulton set unrealistic expectations that the Cubans believed and that were politically impossible in the US,” the aide added.

Cuban officials have now made it all but clear that it will release Gross early only if the U.S. government frees five Cuban spies convicted in a Miami trial in 1998 as part of the “Wasp network.”

The Obama administration has said repeatedly no swap is possible because Gross is not a spy. Schneiderman wrote that Cuba’s offer is “a position that many think is negotiable.”