A top State Department official today confirmed that the Obama administration has been discussing a “spy swap” with the Cuban government, and recently sent officials to meet with Cuban officials to offer concessions on U.S. sanctions against the Castro regime.
The concessions and the potential release of convicted Cuban spies were the subject of meetings aimed at securing the release of Maryland resident Alan Gross, a contractor to the U.S. Agency for International Development arrested in Cuba in 2009 for allegedly distributing communications equipment to members of Cuba’s Jewish community.
“I can confirm that a meeting between U.S. and Cuban officials did take place as part of our effort to get Alan Gross home,” Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman told the House Foreign Affairs committee at a public hearing today.
“I cannot comment on what was said in that meeting. But I can tell you we have laws and restrictions, and we will obey those laws and restrictions,” she added.
First-term Florida Republican Rep. David Rivera pressed Sherman for details.
“Has anyone talked about making an accommodation to the Castro regime for the release of Alan Gross?” Rivera asked. When Sherman wouldn’t reply, he asked her how recently the meeting between Obama administration officials and Cuban government had taken place.
“I don’t know the exact date,” Ms. Sherman said. “Quite recent.”
Sherman, who was confirmed as Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs on Sept. 15, worked with now-National Security Advisor Thomas Donilon on Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign. He was also previously an Assistant Secretary of State in the Clinton administration. She is now the State Department’s third ranking official.
The spy swap was set in motion by former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, who traveled to Cuba last month to seek Gross’s release. He told Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez that the Obama administration would be willing to consider the release of a convicted Cuban spy, Rene Gonzales along with other concessions.
Hernandez is serving two life sentences for sending information to Havana which enabled Cuba to shoot down two Miami-based civilian aircraft with warplanes in 1996. All four Americans on board were killed. The victims were members of the Brothers to the Rescue humanitarian organization.
In reading excerpts from an account of the Obama administration’s negotiations with Cuba published by the Associated Press this morning, Rivera asked Ms. Sherman who had authorized Gov. Richardson to make such concessions.
“I don’t know that anybody authorized Gov. Richardson to make such a trip or such concessions,” Ms. Sherman said … It was before I was Undersecretary.”
Rivera pointed out that the AP account quoted unnamed administration officials who discussed the Richardson offer, and who added that the Cuban government also wanted the U.S. to release four other Cubans convicted in 2001 of spying on U.S. military facilities in south Florida.
Rivera said it was “outrageous that we would be negotiating with a terrorist regime to
release an American hostage.”
The spy swap was just the beginning, the AP reported. Richardson reportedly offered the
Cubans a whole laundry list of concessions, which they turned down.
The list included removing Cuba from the U.S. State Sponsors of Terrorism list; cutting back on Cuban democracy promotion programs like the one Gross worked on; assisting Cuban off-shore oil drilling efforts; improving postal exchanges; and ending a program that facilitates the defection of Cuban medical personnel to the United States.