HAVANA — Washington and Havana are trading barbs over U.S. treatment of a Cuban intelligence agent who left prison in 2011 but has been ordered to remain in America while he completes three years of parole.
Cuba complained this week that it has not been afforded consular access to Rene Gonzalez since September, a violation, it said, of the 1963 Vienna Convention. Gonzalez, one of the so-called Cuban Five, was granted release in October 2011 after completing all but two years of a 15-year sentence. He is serving his parole in an undisclosed location, though he was allowed last year to briefly return to Cuba to visit his ailing brother.
On Thursday, the State Department responded, saying Washington has no obligation to extend Gonzalez consular access since he is a dual U.S.-Cuban citizen, and the convention applies only to foreigners.
The State Department said Gonzalez had been granted consular access while in prison as a “courtesy,” and had also traveled to Washington in recent months to meet with Cuban diplomats there. The two countries lack formal ties but maintain diplomatic missions known as Interests Sections, instead of embassies, in their respective capitals.
The State Department noted that each country bars the other’s diplomatic envoys from leaving the capital without permission, hinting that the restriction was a reason Gonzalez could not meet Cuban consular officials wherever he is living.
Cuba responded shortly after the State Department issued its statement, saying late Thursday that it has let U.S. diplomats travel outside Havana to meet with jailed American and Cuban-American citizens.
“In recent months, U.S. functionaries, including the head of the U.S. Interests Section, have been granted consular access (to prisoners in the provinces of) Matanzas, Camaguey, Ciego de Avila, Artemisa and Mayabeque,” Josefina Vidal, the Cuban Foreign Ministry’s head of North American affairs, said in a statement. “These travel permissions for consular access have been authorized without exception.”
She said Gonzalez had also been denied permission to travel away from the location where he is serving his parole.
Despite the rebuke, Vidal’s statement was free of any specific threats of retaliatory measures Cuba might take to limit consular access on the island, a sign, perhaps, of a slight thaw in relations in recent weeks. A delegation of U.S. lawmakers led by Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, was in Cuba last month and met for nearly three hours with President Raul Castro.
They also were allowed to visit U.S. government subcontractor Alan Gross, whose 2009 arrest has hampered efforts at a wider rapprochement between the Cold War enemies. Gross was sentenced to 15 years in jail after he was caught bringing communications equipment into the country illegally while on a USAID-funded democracy-building program.
The Cuban Five were arrested in 1998 and convicted three years later of being part of a ring that sought to spy on Florida military installations, Cuban exile groups and politicians opposed to Castro’s government.
One of the agents was also convicted of murder conspiracy connected to Cuban fighter jets’ shooting down of an exile flight over the Florida Straits in 1996.
Havana maintains that the men were no threat to U.S. national security and were only monitoring militant anti-Castro exiles in Florida, some of whom are blamed for a string of bombings in Cuba.
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