One of the more interesting, if overlooked, stories, in the press recently, has been former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson recent trip to Cuba to meet Alan Gross, the U.S. sub-contractor condemned in Cuba for what the Cuban state characterized as subversive activities.
The trip was a failure. That failure is interesting not so much for its substantive take on the state of relations between Cuba and the United States–something that has been more or less stable within broad lines, for the last half century–but for the way it shows very distinct political-cultural styles of governance and intervention. In the United States. the high profile gesture that means to embrace the media as the means through which mass opinion is mobilized and managed, what sometimes passes for politics (and legislative discourse) in the United States, is usually interpreted as a threat to and a challenge of the state apparatus. When Americans travel to Cuba, like Jimmy Carter did recently to speak with dissident bloggers, it can as easily be interpreted as little more than grandstanding for an external audience than as an effort to engage the state. On the other hand, in the United States, the sort of opaque rules of effective engagement runs counter to American political sensibilities in ways to touch on its understanding of relationship between people and state.
Press accounts suggest the chasm. Juan Tamayo provided one of the best accounts of the episode. Juan Tamayo, Former Gov. Richardson leaves Cuba without Gross, The Miami Herald, Sept. 14, 2011. Tamayo read the events in terms of failure and a betrayal of the original understanding that led to the invitation to the Governor to visit Cuba. That betrayal, in turn, reflected badly on the Cuban state, an indication of the fissures within the ruling elites producing diplomatic and policy schizophrenia.
Former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, in a stunning setback, says he will leave Cuba on Wednesday without even meeting seeing a U.S. government subcontractor jailed in Havana for nearly 22 months.
Miami Democrat Joe Garcia, a longtime Richardson friend, said the Cuban government’s refusal to allow the meeting, after inviting the former governor to the island, reflects a serious split within the country’s ruling class. (Juan Tamayo, Former Gov. Richardson leaves Cuba without Gross, The Miami Herald, Sept. 14, 2011.)
The Governor pouted: ““Perhaps the Cuban government has decided it does not want to improve relations” with Washington, Richardson was quoted saying at a news conference in Havana on Tuesday. “Perhaps that is the message it is sending.” (Id.).
Richardson landed in Havana Sept. 7 amid reports that Cuba had “invited” him, which sparked hopes that the 62-year-old Gross would be freed and sent home to Potomac, Md., when Richardson left.
Yet, Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez told him that he would not be allowed to meet with Gross, Richardson said. He pushed his case during meetings with Catholic Cardinal Jaime Ortega and others and even vowed to remain in Havana until he met Gross. (Id.).
(Richardson stymied in Cuba visit to free Gross, Buffalo News, Spt. 156, 2011)
But one news report was perceptive enough to suggest a link between the trip’s failure and its publicity in the U.S. “It was not clear what went wrong this time around. Richardson has not said specifically what he was told by the Cubans that led him to believe they welcomed his visit, or who in the government had delivered the message. Word of the trip leaked to U.S. news media outlets in Washington just as Richardson arrived, perhaps leading to a perception in Havana that the American was seeking to pressure them into a decision.” (Paul Haven, Richardson to leave Cuba bitter, with no prisoner, AP, printed in the Anchorage Daily News, Sept. 13, 2011). But Gilbert Gallego, who accompaniesd the Governor suggested further complications: “Gallegos acknowledged the Cubans may have been upset with the media attention, but said Richardson’s team got the impression that was not what scuttled the visit. “The sense we got is that their decision was made before we got there,” he said.” (Paul Haven, Richardson aide says Cuba backtracked on American, AP Report, printed in the Anchorage Daily News, Sept. 14, 2011).
The press suggest umbrage as well, both by the Governor and the U.S. government. “Mr Richardson, now back in the US, told CNN he was stunned by Cuba’s “dramatic snub”, which seemed to suggest Havana was not seeking improved US ties.” (Cuba accuses Bill Richardson over Alan Gross visit, BBC News, Sept. 15, 2011).
A CNN report Tuesday quoted an unidentified U.S. State Department official as saying that Cuba invited Richardson primarily to talk about U.S.-Cuba relations; but that he made it clear he wanted to talk about Gross.
“There were never any guarantees, but when they made the offer there was great hope. He was told he would be able to see Gross,” the official was quoted as saying.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters in Washington that the Obama administration regretted the Cuban rejection of Richardson but added that it “certainly underscored the plight of Mr. Gross.” (Juan Tamayo, Former Gov. Richardson leaves Cuba without Gross, The Miami Herald, Sept. 14, 2011.)
The Cuban state viewed this from a different perspective. “Cuban Communist Party official Josefina Vidal told AP that Richardson had never been invited to come to Cuba for such purposes. Vidal accused Richardson of “blackmail” and “slander” in an interview with AP: “His request to see the prisoner … became impossible due to his slanderous statements to the press in which he described Gross as a ‘hostage’ of the Cuban government,” Vidal said. Richardson made the comment last Thursday after he said his demand to see Gross was rebuffed.” (Circles Robinson, Richardson Leaves Cuba, Alan Gross Stays, Havana Times, Sept. 15, 2011)
Patricia Grogg provided context in another report from Cuba:
Además del embargo, punto focal del conflicto, las severas condenas impuestas a esos cinco cubanos acusados de espionaje en Estados Unidos, complican una mejoría en las relaciones.
A su vez, Washington ha dicho claramente que esa mejora no será posible mientras La Habana no haga lo mismo con el estadounidense Alan Gross.
Para Morales, estudioso de la política estadounidense, Obama luce atrapado entre el preludio de las próximas elecciones, conflictos internacionales que atraen “sobremanera” su atención y la crisis económica interna. “En esas condiciones, aumenta la presión para facilitar la subversión interna en Cuba”, consideró.
Esto deja a Cuba “en posición de no dar tampoco señales positivas de buena voluntad”, como la esperada por el ex gobernador de Nuevo México, Bill Richardson, quien no logró autorización de las autoridades para visitar a Gross, condenado en La Habana a 15 años de prisión por delitos “contra la independencia o integridad territorial del Estado”.
Richardson estuvo hasta mediados de esta semana en la capital cubana en visita privada, y se entrevistó con el cardenal católico Jaime Ortega, pero no fue recibido como en ocasiones anteriores por el presidente del parlamento, Ricardo Alarcón.
Los cinco cubanos –Fernando y René González, Antonio Guerrero, Gerardo Hernández y Ramón Labañino– fueron apresados el 12 de septiembre de 1998 y sentenciados en 2001 a penas de entre 15 años de cárcel y doble cadena perpetua más 15 años de prisión por conspiración para cometer espionaje.
Hernández también es acusado de conspiración para cometer asesinato. Cuba niega los cargos contra quienes considera luchadores antiterroristas y héroes de la patria.
En su encuentro con periodistas, el primer vicecanciller Moreno solo admitió preguntas sobre el embargo, al que situó como principal obstáculo para el desarrollo de su país.
No obstante, la directora de América del Norte del Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores, Josefina Vidal Ferreiro, precisó en una declaración enviada a la prensa extranjera que Richardson viajó por su iniciativa, en visita privada en cuyos preparativos “nunca estuvo sobre la mesa la liberación de Gross”.
“Su solicitud de ver al recluso, que no anticipó previamente, se tornó imposible, a raíz de sus declaraciones calumniosas a la prensa, en las que calificó a Alan Gross de rehén del gobierno cubano, y de su intento de presionar, al afirmar públicamente que no se retiraría de Cuba hasta no cumplir este propósito”, puntualizó Vidal.
A pesar de no estar “obligado”, el gobierno cubano facilitó encuentros con Gross de personalidades estadounidenses “que lo han solicitado de manera privada, discreta y respetuosa”, dijo.
La salud de Gross es “normal, de acuerdo con su edad y padecimientos crónicos” y recibe una atención médica “esmerada”. Así lo constataron funcionarios consulares estadounidenses que participaron en un encuentro organizado el 1 de este mes con el personal médico que atiende a Gross, concluyó la declaración. (Patricia Grogg, Cuba busca nueva condena a Washington, Inter Press Service in Cuba, Sept. 14, 2011).
The suggestion here adds to the complication. The Cuban state viewed the visit from a distinct geo-political perspective, linking the matter of Mr. Gross to that of five of its citizens condemned as spies in the United States, and with the Embargo. But more importantly, the Cuban officials involved were clearly unhappy with the public nature of the visit. The Cubans might have been looking for a low profile and discrete agreement to exchange spies–something the United States has recently effectuated with the Russians–in the context of broader talks about relations, especially now that Castro is involved in significant structural changes to the Cuban economic system. But it got a very public visit instead that was critical to its success from the American perspective, given the internal politics about US Cuban relations in the U.S.. But all of that might have proven impossible in any case as, the Cuban themselves suggested, because of their suspicion of American actions during the Presidential election cycle that has just commenced.
But the principal casualty of this failed visit appears to be Bill Richardson himself:
The visit must have been particularly awkward for Richardson, who traditionally has had a warm relationship with the Cuban government. This time, it even got personal. Per the Washington Post:
“Unfortunately after this negative experience, I don’t know if I could return here as a friend,” he said. “The next step is up to the Cuban government, but they have not treated me like a friend.”
Meanwhile, Gross, 62, is in his 22nd month of a 15-year sentence for attempting to destabilize the government. As long as they hold him, it seems like the briefly warmed relations between the two governments have frozen back over. (Sra Childress, Richardson unfriends Cuba, Global Post: ¿Que Pasa? Sept. 14, 2011).