The Cuban government wants to swap imprisoned U.S. contractor Alan Gross for five Cuban spies jailed in the United States, former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson says.
Richardson traveled to Cuba in September hoping to broker a deal with the Castro government to release Gross, who has lost several pounds and developed a growth under his right shoulder blade since Cuban authorities locked him up two years ago, according to his lawyer.
But Richardson returned empty-handed, saying the Castro government wants to strike a deal that would exchange Gross for five intelligence agents convicted of espionage.
“The Cubans have decided that they want to trade the one American, Alan Gross—who I believe is innocent and hurting and should come home—for five Cuban political prisoners who have had serious crimes,” Richardson told Juan Williams in an exclusive interview for Fox News Latino.
“Unfortunately, that decision was made when I was heading to Cuba,” Richardson added. “I thought maybe I would have some negotiating room, but my hope is that negotiations on this issue can continue.”
Richardson, a Democrat, says he traveled to Cuba as a private citizen, rather than a representative of the Obama administration.
In December 2009, the Cuban government jailed Gross, a contractor for U.S. Aid who says he traveled to Cuba to set up wireless Internet connections for the country’s tiny Jewish community. The Castro government accused Gross of supporting political dissidents and convicted him of violating Cuba’s sovereignty.
Gross is currently serving a 15-year jail sentence.
The Cuban government has long campaigned for the release of its five intelligence officers, known on the island as the “Cuban 5,” who were convicted by the U.S. government as unauthorized foreign agents who infiltrated Cuban exile groups. Cuban officials have not said publicly that they seek a swap, however.
Despite Richardson’s diplomatic setback, he continues to support opening relations between the United States and Cuba.
“The embargo isn’t working,” Richardson said. “Relaxing travel makes sense.”
But Richardson said progress would also depend on how much Cuba is willing to reform its Communist political system.
“I think the Cubans have to respond,” Richardson said. “They’ve got to lighten up on some of the democracy issues that they push and release this Gross guy and have some more democratic freedoms.”
Based on reporting by the Associated Press.