U.S. denies `Cuban Five' prisoner swap

News from Cuba | Thursday, 2 September 2010

The State Department said reports of a possible U.S.-Cuba spy swap are flat-out wrong.BY JUAN O. TAMAYO

The U.S. State Department Thursday flatly denied reports that the Obama administration is considering swapping the ``Cuban Five" spies in U.S. prisons for a U.S. government subcontractor jailed in Havana.

The denial came a day after Cuban-Americans in Congress expressed concern over reports of a deal to free Alan Gross, held without charges since his arrest in Havana on Dec. 3.

``The United States is NOT considering the release of any member of the Cuban Five in exchange for Alan Gross," Mark Toner, director of the State Department's press office, wrote in a statement e-mailed to El Nuevo Herald on Thursday.

``We are committed to using every possible diplomatic channel to press for Mr. Gross's release, but we will not consider a `prisoner swap,' " Toner added. ``We continue to urge the Cuban Government to release Alan Gross immediately."

In letters Wednesday to the Departments of State and Justice, the five Cuban-Americans in Congress wrote that they were ``seriously concerned about increasing reports that the Administration is conducting negotiations with the Castro regime" for a swap.

``The U.S. must be careful not to telegraph to rogue regimes that they may be able to successfully extort our government by abducting innocent Americans," said South Florida Republican Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Lincoln and Mario Diaz Balart and New Jersey Democrats Sen. Bob Menendez and Rep. Albio Sires.

They noted that one of the ``Cuban Five" convicted in Miami in 2001 was found guilty of playing a role in Cuba's shootdown of two Brothers to the Rescue planes in 1996 that killed four South Floridians.

``We would hope that these reports are unfounded. However, if they are accurate, we respectfully ask . . . that you immediately cease such efforts," they added.

Cuba has long demanded the release of its five spies, who are serving sentences of 15 years to life, and ruler Raúl Castro in April of 2009 offered to exchange them for the island's political prisoners.

But rumblings of a possible swap began spreading after the arrest of Gross, a U.S. Agency for International Development subcontractor who delivered satellite communications equipment to Jewish groups in Cuba. No charges have been filed against Gross.

Former Cuban ruler Fidel Castro lent credibility to the rumblings when he declared on July 26 that the release of the five ``is very close . . . very much before the end of the year." He repeated his prediction a week later, saying, ``There's no guess work here."

But the rumblings spiked again when New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat close to the Obama administration, visited Cuba Aug. 22-27 for what his office described as a trade-promotion mission. Several Cuba blogs speculated that he would try to broker a swap.

Richardson won the release of three Cuban political prisoners after a visit in 1996, and has negotiated the release of U.S. citizens held in North Korea, Iraq and Sudan.

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