WASHINGTON — More than a year ago in a secret location in Ottawa, Canada, representatives from the U.S. and Cuba began discussing how to resolve more than 50 years of distrust and tension. It involved long discussions about the swap of political prisoners, and viewpoints on democracy. But a senior Obama administration official says it was the decision to free American Alan Gross by the Cuban government on humanitarian grounds that triggered Wednesday’s surprise historic development.
The Canadian government has been quiet about what went on, but, “Canada was pleased to host the senior officials from the United States and Cuba, which permitted them the discretion required to carry out these important talks,” said Canadian Prime Minister Steven Harper in a statement.
It’s unclear who initiated the discussions, but Deputy White House Press Secretary Shawn Turner told WTOP President Barack Obama was committed to starting a dialogue from the early stages of his presidency.
The terms of the deal that emerged were that Gross, a U.S. contractor held by the Cuban government on spying charges since 2009 and a U.S. intelligence asset, be traded for convicted Cubans Gerardo Hernandez, Ramon Labanino and Antonio Guerrero.
Hernandez, Labanino and Guerrero were members of the Cuban Five. They were intelligence officers convicted of numerous charges, including the killing of four Miami-based pilots. The pilots small plane was shot down by a Cuban MiG in international waters on Feb. 24, 1996.
The U.S. intelligence agent released by the Cuban government was identified by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence in a statement only as, “a Cuban individual from a Cuban prison who provided critical assistance to the United States. Information provided by this person was instrumental in the identification and disruption of several Cuban intelligence operatives in the United States and ultimately led to a series of successful federal espionage prosecutions.”
Among those operatives were Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) senior analyst Ana Belen Montes; former Department of State official Walter Kendall Myers and his spouse Gwendolyn Myers. They are now serving long sentences in U.S. prisons for spying.
The swap is being hailed as a new beginning for U.S.-Cuba relations, but Turner says there are still difficult issues to wrestle with. “There are some issues, such as Cuba’s efforts to smuggle weapons into North Korea, which was in contravention of United Nation Security Council sanctions,” said Turner.
The goal he said is to create a working relationship with Cuba. The development is expected to “foster an environment of openness and dialogue with Cuba that we have not had in quite some time, so that when we have those issues, we can raised and directly with the Cubans.”