The secret talks to free Alan Gross from Cuba were complicated by the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl in return for five Taliban commanders, The New York Times reports
Bergdahl, who had been held prisoner in Afghanistan for nearly five years, had just been released for the detainees at Guantanamo Bay when two White House officials, Benjamin Rhodes and Ricardo Zuniga, traveled to Ottawa, Canada, for negotiations with their Cuban counterparts.
The Cubans were able to point to Bergdahl’s release as the precedent for the Obama administration to approve a Gross exchange deal for three Cuban agents held in the United States, a senior administration official told the Times.
The Cubans were in a hurry to have the prisoner swap approved by the White House because Gross’s mother Evelyn was dying of cancer, and they feared her death (she died June 18) would result in a then-distraught Gross killing himself and thus wiping out their main bargaining chip.
Gross was working for a subcontractor of U.S. Agency for International Development in 2009 when he was arrested
and sentenced to 15 years in prison. As a contractor, he was installing internet access for the island's small Jewish community that bypassed Cuba's restrictions.
But Bergdahl’s freedom added a new wrinkle to the talks with the Cubans to get Gross out, especially in light of allegations that the soldier had deserted his outpost
in a remote area of Afghanistan, according to the newspaper.
Bergdahl’s release in exchange for the Taliban terrorists caused a firestorm in Congress, with Republicans in particular taking aim at President Barack Obama’s deal. And the uproar led the White House to demand that any arrangement to free Gross and the Cuban spies would have to be more than a simple prisoner swap.
“We made the point, ‘This shows you how controversial swaps are. This is something we are only willing to consider in the context of an appropriate exchange,’ ” a senior official told the Times. “The important thing was not to see the swap as the end, but the gateway to the policy changes.”
Eventually, the deal included the controversial resumption of diplomatic relations between the two countries after 53 years of enmity, as well as the release of 53 Cuban political prisoners
and an ex-Cuban intelligence officer, Rolando Sarraff Trujillo, who had worked for the CIA.
Even with Pope Francis reaching out to help both sides to forge an agreement, it took another six months before the deal went through, which was basically blamed on the furor surrounding Bergdahl’s freedom.
“The Cubans thought the Bergdahl prisoner exchange made it easier,” said Tim Rieser, an aide to Vermont Democrat Sen. Patrick Leahy, who’d carried out his own talks on Gross with Cuba for 2 years. “I told them it made it harder for the president and they needed to make it easier.”
Rieser, who was privy to all the talks between both sides, told the Cubans that with Obama under fire over the Bergdahl deal that any agreement to free Gross should not look like the president was conducting a very similar deal.
“I told them you’ve got to put yourself in Obama’s shoes,” he told the Times. “It’s a politically difficult decision for him, and he’s got 50 other more important issues on his desk right now.”
But Peter Kornbluh, a senior analyst at the National Security Archive in Washington and author of “Back Channel to Cuba”
about secret talks between the Washington and Havana, claimed the White House deal was not clearly thought out.
“What is unprecedented is the U.S. argument that the swap had to have some equivalence,” he told the Times. “Negotiations in foreign policy don’t have to be equivalent. They just have to meet the needs to both sides.”
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