HAVANA — Cuba accused former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson of "blackmail" and slander on Wednesday, denying his claims that he was invited to the island to negotiate the release of a jailed American government subcontractor.
In an exclusive interview with the Associated Press, the Foreign Ministry's head of North American affairs, Josefina Vidal, said Cuba closed the door on Richardson's request to even see imprisoned Maryland-native Alan Gross only after the American politician described him as a "hostage," in an interview with AP.
"His request to see the prisoner ... became impossible due to his slanderous statements to the press in which he described Gross as a 'hostage' of the Cuban government," Vidal said. Richardson made the comment last Thursday after he said his demand to see Gross was rebuffed.
But Vidal said Cuba was already unhappy that word of Richardson's visit was leaked to the press even before it had begun.
"Even before he had met with a single Cuban official the media fallout and the speculation had begun," she said. Vidal insisted that no Cuban official ever led Richardson to believe he would leave the island with Gross.
"The release of the North American prisoner Alan Gross was never on the table," she said, adding that Cuba was caught by surprise when word of Richardson's visit was leaked amid news reports that he was coming to take Gross home.
An aide to Richardson who was with the governor on the trip took exception to Vidal's account, insisting that the American politician was indeed invited to discuss the Gross case.
"The Cubans are making flimsy excuses only after they personally invited Gov. Richardson to discuss the Alan Gross detention and only after they inexplicably stonewalled Governor Richardson," Gilbert Gallegos said in comments e-mailed to AP late Wednesday. He said Richardson would meet with State Department officials and recommend no softening of the U.S. position toward the island until Gross is released.
Gross was sentenced to 15 years in jail for crimes against the state after he was caught illegally bringing communications equipment onto the island while on a USAID-funded democracy building program. His final appeal was denied in August by the country's Supreme Court. Cuba says the programs aim to bring down the government; Gross contends he was only trying to help the island's tiny Jewish community get Internet access.
The case has crippled attempts to improve relations between Washington and Havana, and destroyed what had been a warm relationship between Richardson and Cuban leaders.
In the past, Richardson has been an outspoken proponent of improved relations between the Cold War enemies. But the Democratic politician said Tuesday that he was treated so poorly on his visit that he doubted he could ever return to the island as a friend.
The feeling appears to be mutual.
Vidal said the former governor's behavior amounted to a crude attempt to box the Cuban government into a corner.
"We explained to Mr. Richardson that Cuba is a sovereign country which does not accept blackmail, pressure or posturing," she said.
Richardson is a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations with a long history of negotiating the release of prisoners around the world. While he stressed that he was here as a private citizen, he said he was in close contact with the U.S. State Department.
A department spokesman, Mark Toner, expressed regret Wednesday at Richardson's failure to even see Gross.
"We're disappointed that he was unable to visit him," Toner told reporters. "The fact that the Cuban government refused to permit any kind of contact between Gov. Richardson and Mr. Gross is unfortunate, and it stands in stark contrast to Gov. Richardson's good-faith effort."
Toner said the U.S. remained "very concerned" about Gross' welfare.
"We're going to continue to use every available diplomatic channel to try to press for his release," he said.
Asked whether Richardson brought with him any specific offer from the U.S. government of a quid pro quo, Vidal said only that discussions that Cuban officials had with Richardson were private and confidential. She also would not close the door on any future decision to release Gross on humanitarian grounds, though she said she had no knowledge whether one was imminent.
"This is how things work all over the world ... When a law is broken there is a legal process which must be respected and once the legal process ends it is normal that people wait to see if another process can start," she said.
Gross's final appeal was denied by Cuba's Supreme Court in August, and since then calls for his release on humanitarian grounds have grown louder.
Gross's elderly mother and adult daughter are both suffering from cancer, his family has had financial troubles since his incarceration, and those who have visited him in jail say the previously corpulent man has lost over 100 pounds and now appears gaunt and frail.
On Tuesday, his wife Judy, told the Cuban-related blog Cafe Fuerte that she was extremely worried about her husband.
"Every time I speak with him, he sounds increasingly depressed and anxious to be home," she was quoted as saying. "We are all very worried about both his mental and physical health. He sounds increasingly hopeless; his voice is weaker."
Vidal took exception to descriptions of Gross as seriously ill, saying his health is "normal, in accordance with his age and chronic ailments."
She said he received close medical attention, as well as regular consular visits.
Paul Haven can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/paulhaven