Low-profile US diplomat helped negotiate with Cuba
By Nedra Pickler Associated Press
POSTED: 12/30/2014 01:06:21 AM MST| UPDATED: ABOUT 11 HOURS AGO
WASHINGTON (AP) — Just in time for the holidays, a low-profile
presidential aide invited long-suffering Judy Gross into his White House
office to personally give her the gift she'd been hoping for the past
five years. Her husband, Alan Gross, was being released from a Cuban
prison and coming home.
The meeting was the culmination of two years of quiet negotiations with
Cuban officials. The man who helped handle those negotiations for
President Barack Obama was Ricardo Zuniga, an American diplomat born in
Honduras to a prominent political family.
The dealings involved much more than just Gross' release from a 15-year
sentence, but the re-establishment of diplomatic ties between the United
States and Cuba after a half-century of Cold War hostility. Obama tasked
two aides with the challenge — Ben Rhodes, his long-running foreign
policy adviser, and Zuniga, a foreign service officer newly detailed to
the White House's National Security Council as senior director for
Western Hemisphere Affairs.
Dan Restrepo, who previously held Zuniga's job, said he recommended the
Cuba expert to replace him in part because he knew that relations with
the country could be an important part of Obama's second-term agenda.
Zuniga was serving at the U.S. Embassy in Brazil at the time, but
previously had worked at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana and led
the State Department's Office of Cuban Affairs.
"There's nobody in government who better knew the mechanics, the
policies and politics of Cuba," Restrepo said. "That's a very complex
set of interactions and laws. And how they interact and what is movable
and not movable is not easy to figure out."
Another important skill that Zuniga brought to the Cuba negotiations was
his fluent Spanish. He was born 44 years ago in the Honduran capital of
Tegucigalpa, the grandson of Ricardo Zuniga Augustinus, a conservative
who ran unsuccessfully for president in 1981 and supported the military
dictatorship of Oswaldo Lopez. He moved to the United States with his
American mother as a boy and got a degree in foreign affairs and Latin
American studies from the University of Virginia.
Restrepo said Zuniga is a no-nonsense professional and, although they
had talked about his Honduran roots in passing, he never mentioned his
grandfather or any personal or family politics.
"That's a testament to his professionalism that I don't know what his
politics are, having worked very closely with him," Restrepo said in a
Restrepo said Zuniga had another important qualification for an issue
that needed to be handled in utmost secrecy — discretion.
"He's not an attention-seeking kind of person," said Restrepo, now a
senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. "Cuba policy
development has often been notable for how quickly it ends up in the
newspaper. That's not something that Ricardo traffics in."
Word of the Cuba negotiations did not leak over nearly two years of
negotiations with Cuban officials, in Canada and at the Vatican at Pope
Francis' invitation, with Rhodes and Zuniga personally keeping Obama
updated. Beyond the negotiations with the small island country, Zuniga
had a whole hemisphere of concerns to worry about, including an influx
of children coming over the border from Central America and other
implications of Obama's immigration policies.
When Obama made a historic phone call going over final negotiations with
Cuban President Raul Castro on Dec. 16, Rhodes and Zuniga sat in front
of the president on an Oval Office couch, listening with briefing books
on their laps. A White House photo taken after Obama hung up shows
Zuniga being embraced by his boss, National Security Adviser Susan Rice.
Zuniga and Rhodes spent the next day furiously preparing Obama's remarks
to announce the thaw, then took a quiet moment to watch the televised
speech from Rhodes' West Wing office.
Obama's announcement was an unexpected news development during the
holiday season, with Gross flying home on the second day of Hanukkah.
Even Judy Gross was skeptical that a breakthrough had really come in her
husband's case, which Obama had set as a requirement for improving
relations with the communist nation.
Gross family attorney Scott Gilbert was with Judy Gross in Zuniga's
office in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on Dec. 12 when she
learned a deal had been reached. Zuniga told them Alan Gross would be
freed the following Wednesday and invited them to come on the U.S.
government flight to retrieve him.
"I think after the five years of this, Judy was still somewhat
unbelieving even at that meeting and also somewhat in shock," Gilbert
said in a telephone interview.
"My comment to Ricardo was he needed to get this done so that both he
and Alan could go home for the holidays," Gilbert added.
He said Zuniga also had spent a lot of time away from wife and two
daughters. "He was extremely committed to trying to accomplish this
outcome and worked day and night to get it done."
Follow Nedra Pickler on Twitter at https://twitter.com/nedrapickler
Source: Low-profile US diplomat helped negotiate with Cuba - The Denver