HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuba said on Wednesday it refused to let former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson see jailed American Alan Gross during a recent visit to the island because it was irked at some of his actions.
Richardson, in an interview with CNN, said he was stunned by Cuban officials’ “dramatic snub” and that it seemed to indicate Havana did not want to improve relations with the United States.
The Cuban government said in a statement that Richardson had used “slanderous” language by referring to Gross as a hostage in remarks to the media and had attempted to pressure the government into letting him see Gross, which made it impossible for the visit to occur.
“Mr. Richardson was reminded that Cuba is a sovereign country that does not accept blackmail, pressures or arrogance,” said the statement from Josefina Vidal, the Foreign Ministry’s director of North American affairs.
Gross, 62, is serving a 15-year sentence for bringing Internet communications illegally into Cuba under a secretive U.S. program aimed at changing Cuba’s communist government. Cuba considers the program subversive.
The case has frozen U.S.-Cuba relations that had warmed slightly before Gross’ arrest in Havana in December 2009.
The September 7 arrival of Richardson, who has served as U.S. diplomatic troubleshooter in various cases and has had good relations with the Cubans, raised hopes he would negotiate Gross’ release. But Vidal said a release had not been discussed beforehand and was shot down immediately when he raised it.
Richardson told reporters on Tuesday he would leave on Wednesday without seeing Gross, which he said was perhaps a message from Cuba that it does not want improved relations with the United States.
Vidal’s statement appeared aimed at refuting that charge but did not address it directly.
Richardson insisted he was invited by Cuba but Vidal said he came “on his initiative.”
In an interview aired on CNN late Wednesday after his return to the United States from Cuba, Richardson said the “dramatic snub” of his effort to free Gross occurred on September 8.
It came after “a delightful lunch” with Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez, who government officials had described as “the main decision-maker” when it came to the Gross case, Richardson said.
“After the lunch he said three things — ‘One, you will not take Alan Gross back. Two, you will not see President Raul Castro. And three, we’re not even going to let you see him (Gross),” Richardson said.
“I was stunned. I was flabbergasted,” he said. “What I think happened is there are some hard-line elements in the Cuban government that basically don’t want to improve the relationship with the United States.”
The Gross family, through Washington lawyer Peter Kahn, had expressed concern on Tuesday that Richardson’s inability to visit Gross meant his health was deteriorating but Vidal denied that.
“The state of health of Mr. Gross is normal, in accordance with his age and chronic ailments. He receives close medical attention,” she said, adding that a U.S. diplomat had visited him as recently as Saturday.
Reporting by Jeff Franks; Editing by Tom Brown and Bill Trott