HAVANA - The Cuban Foreign Ministry fired back at former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson Wednesday night, accusing him of lying to the press and of being disrespectful to the Cuban authorities. Officials further denied that there is anything out of the ordinary with the health of a jailed U.S. aid worker.
An official statement says Richardson's visit to Cuba came "at his initiative and we received his request, on a private visit, as on other occasions in the past."
Richardson left Havana in a huff this morning, "disappointed and perplexed," he said, because he was not allowed to visit Alan Gross at the Havana Military Hospital where he is being held, and because the Cubans refused to discuss the case with him. Richardson insisted to the press that he had been invited here by the Cuban Government, told to come after September 1. He said they told him Alan Gross would be on the agenda.
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Gross was arrested in December, 2009, and sentenced last March to 15 years in prison for bringing illegal communications equipment into Cuba as part of a program subcontracted to his employer by USAID. The Cubans say this program and others like it are intended to overthrow throw their government.
The Director of the North America Division of the Foreign Ministry, Josefina Vidal, sent a statement to the foreign press Wednesday evening, "in the interest of making objective and true information available."
"The release of U.S. citizen jailed in Cuba, Alan Gross, was never on the table during the preparations for his [Richardson's] trip, which was made clear to Mr. Richardson as soon as he raised it," reads the statement.
Vidal says the ex-governor's request to see the prisoner had not been on the agenda and "was made impossible by his slanderous statements to the press, in which he described Alan Gross as a 'hostage' of the Cuban Government and his attempt to pressure by affirming publicly that he would not leave Cuba until he had achieved this goal."
Vidal's statement affirms that her government reminded Richardson "that Cuba is a sovereign country that does not accept blackmail, pressure or prepotency."
The Cuban government's official response to Richardson's claims made in two separate encounters with foreign journalists in Havana, goes on to say that while "it is under no legal obligation to give private citizens access to any sanctioned person, for humanitarian reasons it has facilitated meetings with Mr. Gross by U.S. public figures who have visited the country and who have asked to do so in a private, discrete and respectful manner."
One of Richardson's complaints to the media before leaving Havana was that he couldn't understand why he was not being allowed to see Gross when other Americans had been given that opportunity.
In response to Richardson's saying that Gross' health was "very deteriorated" and that he had lost 100 pounds and had "lesions on his arms", Vidal adds that "Mr. Gross' health is normal for a person of his age and chronic illnesses." Among other things, Gross was reported to be suffering from gout when he was arrested.
Furthermore, Vidal writes, Gross is "receiving appropriate medical attention" and says this was confirmed by the U.S. Interests Section, Washington's lone diplomatic outpost in Havana, during a consular visit on September 9th and "in a meeting that U.S. consular officials organized with the doctors attending him [Gross] on the first of this month".
In an impromptu press conference Tuesday at the Hotel Nacional where he was staying, Richardson said he was "disappointed and perplexed" and put forth the possibility "that the Cuban Government has made a decision (to) not improve relations with the United States."
President Obama and the State Department have said that Gross' imprisonment is a major obstacle to any further improvement in bilateral relations.
Richardson reiterated that he was in Cuba as a private citizen and not representing the U.S. Government, although he spoke with the State Department before he came and had its support. He noted that just that morning President Obama voiced support for his efforts.
Obama told journalists in Washington Tuesday that "Richardson is acting as a private citizen on an humanitarian mission to try to free Gross. Anything to get Mr. Gross free we will support, although Mr. Richardson does not represent the U.S. government in his actions there."