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Former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson’s trip in 2011 to Cuba to press for the release of Alan Gross, the American subcontractor who was jailed on the island and who was returned to the United States Wednesday, did more damage than good, according to sources close to the White House.
Richardson, a Democrat whose long roster of public service includes being a member of Congress and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, had successfully helped negotiate the release of Americans held as hostages and prisoners in sworn enemy nations.
But this trip, which Richardson, author of "How to Sweet-Talk a Shark: Strategies and Stories from a Master Negotiator,” made on his own, not as an emissary of the United States, turned out badly.
Cuban officials were not happy about Richardson’s visit, though the former governor has said that they encouraged him to travel there. The officials denied his request to see Gross in jail. Gross, who was working in Cuba as a subcontractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development, brought computer equipment to the Jewish community on the island, reportedly as part of a democracy project that was not authorized by the Cuban government.
Cuban authorities arrested him in 2009 on charges of "actions against the independence or the territorial integrity of the state” and sentenced him to 15 years in jail.
Richardson, rebuffed by Cuban officials during his visit, angrily told the press that they were holding Gross as a political prisoner.
Any small gains U.S. officials had been making in securing Gross’s release came to halt, it seems.
“Richardson decided he was going to go and save the day,” Politico quoted a former Obama administration official as saying. “He was freelancing.”
Richardson admitted as much.
In an interview last year with Newsmax, a conservative news outlet, Richardson said: “I screwed that one up.”
"I thought we had a deal. I went in and talked to the Cubans. The Cubans were changing their policy at the last minute,” he said. “Instead of shutting up and waiting for things to calm down, I was in Havana and I went to the press. I said 'Alan Gross is a political prisoner, [and] the Cubans are not playing straight.'"
Richardson said he had lost his touch after years of not working in diplomacy. The Cuba mess was sobering, he added.
"Sometimes you can't go public, you can't show your emotion," Richardson told Newsmax. "You've got to be very restrained and careful when you're negotiating."
On Wednesday, Richardson praised the release of Gross on his Facebook page.
"The release of Alan Gross from a Cuban prison is indeed welcome news especially for his wife Judy whom I know and has suffered enough," Gross said. "I fully support the exchange of Gross for the three Cuban political prisoners. It is a good and proportional deal."
"Several years ago I traveled to Cuba to seek Gross’ release but was stymied when the Cubans first demanded the release of the Cuban Five," Richardson added. "The removal of Alan Gross as an issue between the United States and Cuba should pave the way for a serious improvement in the relationship on a variety of bilateral fronts such as taking Cuba off of the terrorism list and Cuba improving its human rights record."