In Cuba, New Mexico governor discusses case of jailed US contractor with top island officials

By Will Weissert, AP
Thursday, August 26, 2010

In Cuba, Richardson raises case of jailed American

HAVANA — The governor of New Mexico said Thursday that he and Cuba’s foreign minister discussed the plight of a U.S. government contract worker jailed in Havana for nearly nine months on suspicions of spying.

Gov. Bill Richardson said he believed they made progress in what he called a “humanitarian case, not a political case.”

Alan P. Gross, a 60-year-old native of Potomac, Maryland, was working for a firm contracted by USAID when he was arrested Dec. 3 and sent to Cuba’s high-security Villa Marista prison. President Raul Castro has said Gross was distributing illegal satellite phones, but apparently no formal charges have been filed.

In Cuba on a five-day mission to promote exporting New Mexico green chilies, nuts and salsa to the island, Richardson said he was asked by the White House to press for Gross’ release. But he stressed he is not an official negotiator, nor did he come with any back-channel messages from Washington.

“I was asked by the Obama administration to raise the Alan Gross case at the highest levels and I’ve done so. I believe I’ve made some inroads,” Richardson said at a news conference.

He wouldn’t say what he meant by inroads, but added, “I think the Cuban government has a better understanding of the personal side of Alan Gross.”

Richardson said Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez and his deputy told him the “case is at a very sensitive investigatory and legal process at this moment.”

The governor, who met with Gross’ wife and attorney before coming, said that “releasing Alan Gross would be a very welcome humanitarian gesture.”

The U.S. government says Gross committed no crime and his wife, Judy, says he brought communications equipment intended for island Jewish groups, not for political use.

Richardson is making his fourth visit to Cuba and has experience with winning prisoner releases. As a congressman in 1996, he secured the liberation of three island political prisoners during talks with Fidel Castro in Havana.

Richardson heads home Friday. It wasn’t clear if he would meet with Fidel Castro, who has recently been popping up in public after being seen only in occasional photos during the four years since illness forced him to give up the presidency.

“I don’t expect to meet with Fidel Castro. I’ve met with him before, on previous visits, but I’m not a head of state,” Richardson said.

If the pair do sit down, however, the governor said he would “of course raise” the Gross case.

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