In the hopes of freeing contractor Alan Gross the U.S. offered to free Cuban spy René González, an even swap that the Cuban government rejected, according to U.S. officials.
The U.S. also indicated it would be willing to address other Cuban grievances after Havana had released Gross, officials said.
Due to the sensitivity of the issue, the officials spoke on condition of anonymity.
Cuba rejected the offer, noting that the Cuban, René González, already had served most of his sentence. It wanted pardons for at least some of the four other Cubans convicted with González. U.S. officials said they would not consider pardons.
The December 2009 arrest of Gross, a Maryland native, has aggravated relations between the United States and Cuba just as the Obama administration was making tentative movements to ease decades of tension.
Gross was caught bringing prohibited communications equipment into Cuba while on a democracy program financed by the U.S. Agency for International Development. In March, he was sentenced to 15 years for crimes against the state. The United States says Gross was merely trying to help Cuba's Jewish community communicate with the rest of the world and should not have faced prosecution.
The Cuban government has long been upset about the fate of González and four other Cubans, known as the "Wasp Network," who were convicted in 2001 of spying on U.S. military installations in South Florida. Cuban officials say the five were trying to prevent terrorist attacks on the island by monitoring Cuban exiles.
González was released this month after 13 years in prison but a judge has ordered him to serve three years' probation in the United States before returning to Cuba.
U.S. officials offered to press a Miami federal court to allow González to finish the parole in Cuba, in exchange for Gross' release. Under the U.S. proposal, González, a dual U.S.-Cuban citizen, would have renounced his U.S. ties.
Richardson traveled to Cuba last month seeking Gross' release. He also told Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez that the U.S. would be willing to consider other areas of interest to Cuba.
Among them was removing Cuba from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism; reducing spending on Cuban democracy promotion programs like the one that led to the hiring of Gross; authorizing U.S. companies to help Cuba clean up oil spills from planned offshore drilling; improving postal exchanges; ending a program that makes it easier for Cuban medical personnel to move to the United States; and licensing the French company Pernod Ricard to sell Havana Club rum in the United States.
A U.S. official stressed that the offer was only to discuss those issues after Gross was released, with no guarantees that U.S. policies would change.
Richardson's initiative blew up after he referred to Gross as a hostage in an interview and the Cuban government refused to allow him to see Gross. A person briefed on the trip said tensions also spiked when Richardson mentioned that the United States had a plane waiting to make an exchange, if Cuba agreed, a suggestion the Cubans found presumptuous.
Richardson was not immediately reachable for comment Thursday.
U.S. and Cuban officials also discussed the swap on the sidelines of last month's U.N. General Assembly session, but Rodríguez, the foreign minister, rejected the offer, pushing for the additional pardons.
In an interview with The Associated Press on Sunday, Cuban Parliament President Ricardo Alarcon noted that González has served most of his sentence, while Gross has not.
González's Miami-based attorney, Phil Horowitz, said neither he nor his client had been approached by U.S. or Cuban officials or anyone working on behalf of either government about a possible swap.
"There is no linkage between the two, and there never has been," he said. "How could you link Alan Gross to a guy who spent 13 years in prison?"
Horowitz said he plans to file a request soon with the Miami court to allow González to complete his probation in Cuba.
Peter Kahn, a lawyer for the Gross family, said the family supports the State Department's efforts to win Gross' release.
"They continue to be increasingly concerned about Alan's mental and physical health, as well as their own ability to endure this very difficult situation much longer," he said.
Based on reporting by the Associated Press