We will all be deeply disappointed by the outcome of Governor Richardson’s recent trip to Cuba. Not only did he not return with Alan Gross, the American prisoner, he came back with the Cubans accusing him of “blackmail” and “slander” and insisting that he had not been invited down to negotiate Gross’s release – despite his insistence that he had been. For his part, Richardson, who has in the past had good relations with the Cubans, now says he will never go to Cuba again “as a friend.”
We seem to have fallen into a deep hole. What could have gone so wrong? There is clear evidence that Richardson had been invited – for whatever purpose – by the Cubans. They apparently were offended by his reference to Gross after his arrival in Cuba as a “hostage.” According to Josefina Vidal, the head of the North American Affairs in MINREX, it was because of that they refused to allow Richardson even to see Gross. But that cannot have been all there was to it. There had to be other factors behind so bitter a disagreement.
Could President Obama’s statements – or attitude – have had something to do with it? While Richardson was still in Cuba, Obama commented to a group of Hispanic reporters that Cuba had not been “sufficiently aggressive in changing its economic policies” or in giving Cubans the right to speak freely. There were almost no authoritarian communist countries left in the world, he said, but “here you have this small island that is a throwback to the 60s.”
“A throwback to the 60s!” One can imagine the Cubans rankling at those words!
And in calling on the Cubans to free Alan Gross, Obama said the latter’s conviction “was not based on evidence or rule of law.”
But this clearly was not true. Gross was in Cuba without proper documents and was illegally distributing communications equipment for USAID, and doing so under a provision of the Helms-Burton Act that called for “bringing down the Cuban government.” He may not have understood the full implications of his activities, but he must have known them to be illegal.
The timing of the President’s statements raise doubts that they were the cause of the fierce Cuban reaction to the Richardson visit. The trip may already have gone south before they were made. That aside, the attitude behind them will remain – in an already poisoned atmosphere. We seemed to have been moving in a somewhat more reasonable direction. Tragically, the results so far have been just the opposite – with fault on both sides.
The damage, however, can be repaired. At some point, Gross must be released. It makes no sense to hold him indefinitely. He is in poor health and nothing could be worse for the Cubans than that he pass from this world in their custody.
Assistants to Richardson had suggested the U.S. might be prepared to remove Cuba from the terrorist list. It should do so. There is not a shred of evidence that would place Cuba on the list. Removing it would put the U.S. in a new, more sensible, light.
It was also suggested that the U.S. might allow Rene Gonzalez, one of the Cuban Five, to return to Cuba when he is released from prison in the weeks ahead rather than having to remain in the U.S. for three years “under observation.” There is no rational reason to keep Gonzalez in the U.S. He has already been in prison here for thirteen years without seeing his family. The U.S. would be applauded around the world for letting him return to them.
These gestures would start us in a more constructive direction – and surely it is time to start. Are not fifty years of hostility enough?
By Wayne Smith.