Richardson in Cuba: Does He Hold the Cards or Has He Misplayed His Hand?

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When I read last week that former Governor Bill Richardson, also a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, was back in Havana at the invitation of the Cuban government in order to negotiate the release of Alan Gross, I found the invitation to negotiate a bit odd, but I nonetheless figured Gross would be on his way home by now.  If they had invited the former diplomat to Havana to talk about Alan Gross then it seemed he needed to do little more than say the right things.  I tried imagining what Richardson might "offer," such as mentioning his intention to personally brief President Obama on his trip and lessons learned in U.S. Cuba policy. 

But Richardson's mission has faltered, if not yet failed irretrievably. 

He arrived last Wednesday in Havana and had meetings with Cuban officials, including the Foreign Minister, Bruno Rodriguez, on Thursday.  Rodriguez told him that he wouldn't be able to visit Alan Gross.  Now, I have no way of knowing what was said in that meeting.  Did the Cubans make a set of assurances that they then reneged on?  But the Cubans so rarely make assurances - in fact, they usually make a point of telling high level visitors not to expect a meeting with Raul or Fidel.  Perhaps the Cuban leadership is, as Richardon hypothesized, split on what to do with Gross.  But what does that really mean?  Raul wants to let him go but Fidel wants to keep him?  But why invite such a high level guest without clarity on such an important point.  (President Carter was informed ahead of time he wouldn't be taking Mr. Gross home with him, and he said as much in the press.  He did get a visit, though.)  Or maybe Cuba made demands for changes in U.S. policy that Richardson simply can't be expected to deliver?  Afterall, if Cuba wants something from the U.S. and we're willing to give it, there's really no need for an intermediary, other than for optics.

There's no way to know what the Cubans were thinking.  But Richardson has been talking to the press about the kerfuffle, and given the details he's shared, it seems as though the veteran negotiator is either playing a special kind of hard ball, or he may have misplayed his hand. Afterall, once you tell the world that the Cubans won't let you see Alan Gross, it makes it that much harder for the Cubans to reverse themselves.  Richardson's insistence that he won't go without seeing Gross sets up a major showdown - but who has more to lose here?  Given Richardson's stature, the Cubans may be hard pressed to send him away - everyone ends up with egg on their face.  And it may not be easy to find another high-level intermediary willing to make the trip given this dramatic turn of events.  But the Cubans don't respond well to Americans insisting, "It's my way or the highway" (they've been taking the highway for half a century already), and if they were desperate to release Alan Gross as a gesture to the right visitor, President Carter would have been it. 

Calling Gross a hostage, especially in the media as Richardson did last week (while still in Havana) seems to have been an especially big blunder.  Richardson may believe Gross is a hostage, but the Cubans see him as a foreign agent who was convicted of a serious crime and had his day in court.  So to call him a hostage was more like a verbal provocation, rather than the sort of conciliatory "We have strong disagreements but I am determined to work this out" rhetoric I think would have been more effective.  It's surprising that Richardson, who negotiated the release of 3 Cuban political prisoners more than a decade ago on an earlier trip, and who has been following U.S.-Cuban affairs to a certain extent these last two years, wouldn't know better.  Unless he's just that good.  For Alan Gross and his family's sake, I hope he is.