Former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, right, sits in the National hotel after a press conference in Havana, Cuba, Tuesday Sept. 13, 2011. Richardson said he will leave Cuba on Wednesday after exhausting all possible avenues to try to win the release of a U.S. government subcontractor sentenced to 15 years in prison for crimes against the state. Richardson, who previously vowed to remain on the island until he at least got to see jailed Maryland native Alan Gross, said he changed his mind after meetings with the Cuban government and other influential groups failed to yield any results. (AP Photo/Javier Galeano)AP2011
Now it's Bill Richardson's turn to fire back.
The former New Mexico governor has gotten into a war of words with Cuban government over his failed mission to win the release of jailed U.S. subcontractor Alan Gross.
On Thursday, one of his top aides said Richardson held a series of meetings with Cuban officials over more than a year about Gross, and was left with no doubt the Cubans were ready to discuss releasing him.
Gilbert Gallegos, who accompanied Richardson on a failed trip to Havana to try to win Alan Gross' release, told The Associated Press that the Cubans suggested they come. And he said they made clear they "were ready to negotiate."
Gross was arrested in December 2009 after he was caught illegally bringing communications equipment onto the island while on a USAID-funded democracy building program. He was sentenced last March to 15 years in jail for crimes against the state, a ruling upheld in August by Cuba's Supreme Court.
The case has snuffed out any chance for better relations between Washington and Havana, which had briefly been seen as improving after U.S. President Barack Obama took office.
Richardson, who has had success winning the release of prisoners in the past and enjoyed a warm relationship with the Cuban leadership, arrived Sept. 7. But soaring hopes that he would go home with the American quickly turned to mutual recriminations when Cuba declined to even let him see Gross in jail.
Richardson called Gross a "hostage," and ultimately left the island saying he could never come back as a friend. Cuba on Wednesday accused him of "blackmail" and slander in his comments to the AP, and said he was never invited to come or given any indication he would leave with Gross.
Gallegos' comments Thursday made clear the two sides have very different versions of what went wrong.
While Gross' case was still pending, Cuban officials told their American counterparts that the legal process had to be respected. After Gross lost his final appeal Aug. 5, there was increasing hope the 62-year-old Maryland native might be released on humanitarian grounds. He has lost a lot of weight in jail, and his mother and daughter are both battling cancer.
Gallegos said Richardson first brought up Gross' plight during an August 2010 visit to Havana in which he met with Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez. The two spoke again about Gross the next month in New York on the sideline of the U.N. General Assembly, Gallegos said, a meeting that had never been previously disclosed.
Then on June 20 of this year, Richardson got a call from Jorge Bolaños, Cuba's top diplomat in Washington, who asked him to come over to the Cuban mission.
There, Bolaños read Richardson a diplomatic note that "basically said that after the judicial process ended the Cubans were ready to talk to him about Gross," Gallegos said.
On July 22, Richardson had a phone conversation with the Cuban diplomat. Bolaños, who was in Cuba at the time, said that the judicial process against Gross would soon be over and that they could then proceed with the talks. They spoke on the same day that Gross made his final appeal to the Supreme Court.
Richardson suggested he come in August, but Bolaños told him to hold off until Sept. 1. The Supreme Court made its final ruling Aug. 5.
Gallegos said the two men spoke again July 26, at which point Richardson proposed a Sept. 7 trip, which is when he came. On Aug. 10, Richardson had lunch with Bolaños at the Cuban diplomat's residence in Washington. Bolaños told Richardson he would meet Bruno Rodríguez in Havana, and implied that negotiations would ensue.
"It was incredibly clear to Gov. Richardson that the Cubans this time were at the point where they were ready to negotiate," said Gallegos. "They were ready to seriously discuss the possibility of releasing Mr. Gross."
That is the opposite of what Josefina Vidal, head of the Cuban Foreign Ministry's North American affairs division, told the AP on Wednesday.
She insisted that releasing Gross was "never on the table," and chastised Richardson for the fact that news of his trip leaked just as he was arriving, indicating Havana considered it an attempt at pressure tactics.
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.
Gallegos said Richardson met multiple times with State Department officials before his visit. He said Richardson did not bring with him a specific offer from the U.S. government of a quid pro quo, but did discuss areas where he felt progress could be made.
"He offered them eight to 10 areas where he, where Gov. Richardson, felt the relationship could be improved going forward," said Gallegos, adding that Richardson mentioned opening bilateral talks on counternarcotics, environmental issues and cooperation on natural disasters — all things Cuba has long requested from Washington.
Richardson had a three-hour lunch in Havana with Rodriguez, the Cuban foreign minister, which he described as extremely pleasant and productive. At the end, however, Rodríguez was noncommittal on Richardson's requests for a sit down with President Raul Castro, a chance to see Gross and an opportunity to discuss his release. The top Cuban diplomat said he would ask Castro and get back to Richardson.
That evening, Rodríguez called Richardson at Havana's Hotel Nacional to deliver the news.
"He basically gave him three no's," Gallegos said. "It really surprised the governor he would not even be allowed to see Gross."
Gallegos said it was not clear why the Cubans changed their mind. Rodríguez told CNN on Wednesday that he thought hard-liners within the Cuban government had won an internal argument about Gross's fate, dooming the visit.
Gallegos said Richardson briefed the U.S. State Department on the trip on Thursday. He recommended no improvements in bilateral ties until Gross is release.
Based on reporting by The Associated Press.