HAVANA — A top aide to Bill Richardson said Thursday the former New Mexico governor held a series of meetings with Cuban officials over more than a year about the fate of a jailed U.S. subcontractor, and was left with no doubt the Cubans were ready to discuss releasing him.

Gilbert Gallegos, who accompanied Richardson on a failed trip to Havana to try to win Alan Gross’ release, told The Associated Press that the Cubans suggested they come. And he said they made clear they “were ready to negotiate.”

Gross was arrested in December 2009 after he was caught illegally bringing communications equipment onto the island while on a USAID-funded democracy building program. He was sentenced last March to 15 years in jail for crimes against the state, a ruling upheld in August by Cuba’s Supreme Court.

The case has snuffed out any chance for better relations between Washington and Havana, which had briefly been seen as improving after U.S. President Barack Obama took office.

Richardson, who has had success winning the release of prisoners in the past and enjoyed a warm relationship with the Cuban leadership, arrived Sept. 7. But soaring hopes that he would go home with the American quickly turned to mutual recriminations when Cuba declined to even let him see Gross in jail.

Richardson called Gross a “hostage,” and ultimately left the island saying he could never come back as a friend. Cuba on Wednesday accused him of “blackmail” and slander in his comments to the AP, and said he was never invited to come or given any indication he would leave with Gross.

Gallegos’ comments Thursday made clear the two sides have very different versions of what went wrong.

While Gross’ case was still pending, Cuban officials told their American counterparts that the legal process had to be respected. After Gross lost his final appeal Aug. 5, there was increasing hope the 62-year-old Maryland native might be released on humanitarian grounds. He has lost a lot of weight in jail, and his mother and daughter are both battling cancer.

Gallegos said Richardson first brought up Gross’ plight during an August 2010 visit to Havana in which he met with Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez. The two spoke again about Gross the next month in New York on the sideline of the U.N. General Assembly, Gallegos said, a meeting that had never been previously disclosed.

Then on June 20 of this year, Richardson got a call from Jorge Bolanos, Cuba’s top diplomat in Washington, who asked him to come over to the Cuban mission.

There, Bolanos read Richardson a diplomatic note that “basically said that after the judicial process ended the Cubans were ready to talk to him about Gross,” Gallegos said.

On July 22, Richardson had a phone conversation with the Cuban diplomat. Bolanos, who was in Cuba at the time, said that the judicial process against Gross would soon be over and that they could then proceed with the talks. They spoke on the same day that Gross made his final appeal to the Supreme Court.

Richardson suggested he come in August, but Bolanos told him to hold off until Sept. 1. The Supreme Court made its final ruling Aug. 5.



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