Official: Cuba ready to talk about Gross case

Surrounded by security forces, U.S. government contractor Alan Gross, left, arrives to a courthouse to attend a trial in Havana, Cuba, March 5, 2011.
AP Photo/Franklin Reyes
Surrounded by security forces, U.S. government contractor Alan Gross, left, arrives to a courthouse to attend a trial in Havana, Cuba, March 5, 2011.
AP Photo/Franklin Reyes

(CBS News) HAVANA - The Cuban government got a rare opportunity to put its position on a U.S. contractor jailed in Havana and on hostile U.S.-Cuba relations before an American audience Thursday when CNN's Wolf Blitzer interviewed a top Foreign Ministry official.

Josefina Vidal, via satellite from Havana, said that while Cuba is ready to dialogue with the U.S. about the case of Alan Gross they are not advancing any formula, such as a prisoner swap. Instead, the head of the Cuban Foreign Ministry's North America Division declared Havana wants to sit down at the negotiating table with Washington to discuss all outstanding issues in an effort to establish normal relations.

Vidal says that the U.S. demand that Cuba release Gross before it takes any steps to improve relations with the island is just a "pretext" not to do so.

The State Department reacted sharply, saying Vidal's statements only reinforce the U.S. belief that Gross is being held hostage and that there is no justification for his imprisonment.

There hasn't been diplomatic relations between the two countries for five decades, although ever since the Carter presidency they have maintained Interests Sections in each other's capitals.

Vidal was echoing the position laid out in an official letter sent to Blitzer earlier this week, saying Havana has offered to hold a "dialogue to find a humanitarian solution...on a reciprocal basis" to the case of Gross, sentenced to 15 years on charges of trying to subvert the government.

That offer provoked speculation that the Cubans were holding out to swap Gross for five Cuban imprisoned in the U.S. on spying charges for nearly 14 years. Cuba says the men were only seeking information that would help prevent terrorist actions against the island and not U.S. government secrets.

The Gross family has been agitating the media to cover the story and Gross used one of his weekly calls to his family to dial in to Blitzer's show, "The Situation Room." In their conversation broadcast May 4 Gross describes himself as a "hostage."

Jorge Bolanos, head of the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, took umbrage with the way Blitzer and Gross presented the case. A copy of the letter he sent to Blitzer last Tuesday was given to CBS by a Foreign Ministry official. In it, Bolanos insists it is incorrect to say Gross came to Cuba to help the Jewish community connect to the Internet, as claimed by the U.S. State Department. Instead he says Gross concealed from those he met here that he worked for the U.S. government and that he was a paid professional who was "implementing a U.S. government program" aimed at subverting the legal Cuban government.

In an interview with a local CBS station in Baltimore, Gross' wife, Judy, said, "We know now that he did break Cuban law. He did not know that until he got to Cuba and was arrested."

However, leaked documents obtained by The Associated Press reveal that Gross sent messages from Havana in 2009 expressing concern that he could be arrested and that he knew his task for USAID was risky.

The letter from Bolanos refers to Gross' "undercover activities" as constituting "crimes in many countries, including in United States."

Vidal, speaking in English, stuck to the same points outlined in that letter.

However, the Cuban media is reporting on her statements to CNN in Spanish in which she says that Havana is disappointed with the lack of improvement in relations since Obama took office. They had higher expectations, according to Vidal. According to the local media, she admitted President Obama has taken some positive steps but stressed that Washington's basic hostile policy toward Cuba remains unchanged.

President Raul Castro has expressed the same opinion on several public occasions over the past year, noting that the U.S. has made only cosmetic changes in its relations with Cuba by somewhat relaxing its restrictions on travel to the island, but he stressed that nothing has been done to ease the more than five decades-old economic and trade embargo of the island.

Gross has served more than two years of a 15-year sentence. His wife has given very few interviews since his arrest, but she told CBS affiliate WJZ this week that she fears for his health and worries that he will never come home.

The Cubans have allowed his wife and a string of political and religious figures to visit Gross in the Havana military hospital where he is being held rather than in a common prison.

Despite this week's rash of publicity there is no evidence of any movement in the case.