Bill Richardson’s strange Cuba odyssey

Bill Richardson’s strange Cuba odyssey

Self-styled diplomatic troubleshooter Bill Richardson deserves at least some credit for yet another attempt to free U.S. aid worker Alan Gross from a Cuban state security prison. But his recent strange foray into Cuba should make it pretty clear to any sentient being of the futility of trying to negotiate anything with the Castro regime. It’s the diplomatic equivalent of bringing a knife to a gunfight.

Richardson insists he was invited by Cuban officials to discuss the Gross case once Cuba’s kangaroo court proceedings against him were complete. Since Gross was sentenced in August to 15 years in prison for the crime of bringing internet equipment to a small Cuban Jewish group, Richardson made the trip.

However, once he arrived in Havana, he was told in no uncertain terms that Gross was going nowhere, that he couldn’t even meet with him, and that Richardson would not be granted a de rigueur audience with current Cuban figurehead Raul Castro.

At first, a defiant Richardson said he wouldn’t leave Cuba until he saw Gross, but then — evidently reconsidering the implications of an extended stay in the Castro brothers’ Stalinist paradise — he unceremoniously returned to the United States.

Apparently, what had upset the Castro brothers was that Richardson had committed the egregious faux pas of actually speaking the truth while in Cuba, referring to Gross as a "hostage" in an interview. In this, Richardson did indeed slip-up, forgetting that in totalitarian societies language is perverted, white is black, and Alan Gross is not a hostage, but a "criminal" convicted of grave crimes against the State.

Upon his departure from Cuba, Richardson said, "Unfortunately after this negative experience, I don’t know if I could return here as a friend." But in a subsequent interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, it wasn’t clear what Richardson learned from this experience.

He said that at a "delightful" and "wonderful" three-hour lunch with Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez, he was "dramatically snubbed" and "slammed" with the news that the Gross issue was off the table. He went on to blame his failure to see Gross on "hard-liners" within the Castro regime who oppose improved U.S.-Cuban relations, even as he considered Raul Castro a "moderate."

Such comments betray a supremely facile understanding of the nature of the Castro regime or recent events in Cuba. If Raul Castro is a moderate, then Fidel Castro is positively a liberal, since the human rights situation under Raul’s tenure has measurably worsened, with the arrests and persecution of Cuban dissidents exceeding anything in years prior.

Secondly, the claim that unnamed "hard-liners" in the regime are out to torpedo improved U.S. relations again misunderstands Cuban reality. The Castro regime is perfectly willing to normalize relations with the United States — the issue is they are not willing to make any concessions to achieve it. In their minds, they have done nothing wrong; it is the United States that is the guilty party and it is the United States that must rectify the situation by unilaterally changing policy.

As far as the case of Alan Gross, the effort to free him has been botched from the start. It was a tragic miscalculation to believe that "quiet diplomacy" and relying on the good will of the Castro regime had any chance of success. The notion that his case has frozen progress in U.S.-Cuba relations means nothing to the Castro brothers, since you can’t miss something you never had. It is only when the administration starts driving up the real cost to the regime of Gross’s continued incarceration by rolling back U.S. travel and other economically beneficial policies to the regime will it begin to truly reassess the value of their hostage.