HAVANA (AP) — A Cuban intelligence agent who spent more than 15 years in a United States prison said Thursday that he's optimistic that softening U.S. attitudes will lead to the liberation of three fellow agents who remain behind bars.
Fernando Gonzalez, whom the Cuban government lauds as a national hero, told The Associated Press that one of the most positive signs he's seen is former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton's statement in a recent book that she recommended that President Barack Obama end the decades-long U.S. embargo on Cuba.
Cuba has linked the case of its three agents to that of Alan Gross, a U.S. government subcontractor serving a 15-year prison sentence for bringing sensitive technology into the country. Havana has said repeatedly it wants to sit down with Washington to negotiate the fate of Gross and the Cubans, who were arrested in 1998 and convicted on charges including espionage. Cuba argues that they were only keeping tabs on militant exile groups blamed for terror attacks on the island.
Gonzalez said that "at this moment there's a political context that makes me cautiously optimistic."
"There's a growing interest there in changing U.S. policy toward Cuba," he said. "I would like to think that before finishing his term, President Obama would decide to improve relations with Latin America. That would involve a change with Cuba and that would necessarily take place through a solution to the case of my three colleagues."
Asked if it would be impossible for Cuba to free Gross without the immediate U.S. release of the three imprisoned Cubans, he said, "I think it would be very difficult."
"From my personal point of view, I think the liberation of my three colleagues would be necessary."
The U.S. has called for Gross to be released immediately, saying he "has been imprisoned by Cuban authorities for more than four years for doing nothing more than helping Cuban citizens gain access to the Internet."
A lawyer for Gross, who has spent more than four years imprisoned in Cuba, said last month that his client cannot take life in prison much longer and has said his goodbyes to his wife and a daughter. Gross' legal team could not immediately be reached for comment Thursday afternoon.
Gross was arrested in Cuba in 2009 while working here to covertly set up Internet access. His attorney, Scott Gilbert, said that his client "has withdrawn" and told him "life in prison is not a life worth living." Gross has previously said through his lawyer that his 65th birthday, which took place in May, would be the last one that he "celebrates in Havana, one way or the other."
At the time Gross was arrested, he was working as a subcontractor for the U.S. government's U.S. Agency for International Development. He had traveled repeatedly to Cuba on a mission to expand Internet access using sensitive technology typically available only to governments, a 2012 AP investigation found. Cuba considers USAID's programs illegal attempts by the U.S. to undermine its government.
Gonzalez said that as a former prisoner he felt personally sympathetic toward Gross, 65, but felt that the U.S. bore full blame for Gross' predicament.
"From a human point of view I don't wish prison on anybody. From that point of I can understand the situation he finds himself in, but I also understand that responsibility for Mr. Gross falls 100 percent on the government of the U.S.," Gonzalez said.
Michael Weissenstein on Twitter: https://twitter.com/mweissenstein