HAVANA (AP) — The exchange of five Taliban detainees at Guantanamo for a U.S. Army soldier held captive in Afghanistan could set a precedent for a similar swap with Cuba, a Cuban intelligence agent who spent years imprisoned in the United States said Monday.
Fernando Gonzalez, who returned to the island in February after serving more than 15 years behind bars in the United States, said the deal to secure the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl has a clear parallel to the cases of Alan Gross, a civilian U.S. government subcontractor, and three Cuban agents still imprisoned in the United States.
“It is obvious that the only thing needed is the will on the part of the U.S. government to bring about that swap or exchange,” Gonzalez said in his first news conference back in Havana. “This latest development makes that clear.”
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Washington remains committed to winning release for any American citizens held overseas, but suggested that Gross’ case is not comparable to that of a uniformed soldier captured in a war zone. U.S. officials have publicly been cool to the idea of a swap involving the Cuban agents for Gross.
“Nothing has changed in that case now,” Psaki said.
Gross was arrested in Cuba in 2009 while working to set up hard-to-detect Internet networks for the island’s tiny Jewish community as part of a U.S. government development contract. He says his actions posed no threat to the Cuban state. But Havana considers such programs to be an affront to its sovereignty, and he was sentenced to 15 years.
Havana has said repeatedly it wants to sit down with Washington to negotiate the fate of Gross and the three members of the so-called Cuban Five who remain imprisoned in the United States. The agents were arrested in 1998 and convicted on charges including espionage, although Cuba argues that they were only keeping tabs on militant exile groups blamed for terror attacks on the island.
“On this side there is nothing standing in the way” of an exchange, Gonzalez said. “On this side we have transparently and with clarity shown an intention for this situation to be resolved and for humanitarian concerns to be taken into account on both sides.”
Gross, a 65-year-old Maryland native, suffers from various health problems. His U.S. lawyer said in April that he is determined to go home within the next year, either alive or dead.
Rene Gonzalez, who is not related to Fernando Gonzalez, was the first of the Cuban agents to walk free and returned to Cuba in 2013. Antonio Guerrero is the next one scheduled to be released, in 2017.
The cases of Gross and the Cuban Five have been a major sticking point for Cold War foes Havana and Washington, which have not had formal relations for more than five decades.
Bergdahl was released over the weekend after five years in Taliban captivity, stirring debate in Washington over whether the exchange could put other Americans at greater risk of being taken as bargaining chips.
(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)