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Richardson presses Cuba to free American contractor

By David Ariosto, CNN
  • NEW: Richardson believes he made "inroads" in trying to win the release of Gross
  • The New Mexico governor is in Cuba on a trade mission
  • He's also working to secure the release of U.S. contractor Alan Gross
  • Gross was arrested in December on suspicion of spying but has not been charged

Havana, Cuba (CNN) -- New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson wrapped up a week-long trade mission to Cuba Thursday, a trip in which he also pursued another goal -- bringing about the release of a jailed U.S. contractor.

"My objective is very clear: See if I can get [Alan] Gross out, or make it easier for somebody else to do it," Richardson told CNN.

Alan Gross, an American contractor, has been held in a Havana jail since December on suspicion of spying, although no charges have been formally brought against him.

President Raul Castro said Gross was illegally distributing satellite communications equipment and has linked him to clandestine U.S. operations on the island nation.

Richardson said his visit to Cuba is primarily a trade mission intended to bolster agricultural sales, but acknowledged that the U.S. State Department has asked him to press the Gross case with Cuban officials.

"What I'm mainly doing is trying to get salsa, nuts, and green chili from New Mexico sold here [in Cuba], but I am pressing. I was asked to do this," he said. "Alan Gross, I believe, is somebody that should be allowed to go home."

Richardson added that he believes he made "inroads" with the Cuban government toward securing Gross' freedom, but is also facing a sensitive investigatory process surrounding his arrest.

The New Mexico governor has often acted as an informal negotiator for U.S. administrations, engaging in high-level talks with North Korea, Sudan and Iraq.

He speaks fluent Spanish and has previously met with former Cuban President Fidel Castro, negotiating the release of three political prisoners in 1996.

Richardson would not confirm whether he planned to meet with the former Cuban leader during this visit.

He is expected to leave Havana on Friday after a series of meetings with Cuban officials, including Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez.

In an interview with CNN, Richardson called on the Obama administration to further relax U.S. travel restrictions to Cuba.

"This will help," he said, responding to reports that the Obama administration would "soon" announce new rules on the embargo. "It means more travel by Americans to Cuba... almost the same as the Clinton years when there was quite a bit of travel between the two countries."

Washington severed formal diplomatic relations with Havana in 1961 following a revolution that ousted dictator Fulgencio Batista, nationalized U.S. businesses, and eventually installed a one-party communist government under then-Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

Nearly half a century later, Obama's election in 2008 elicited a sense among many Cubans that they might finally see an end to the resultant trade embargo first enacted during the administration of former President John F. Kennedy -- a blockade that Cuba largely blames for its economic woes.

"I've always felt that travel helps ease relationships," Richardson said, remarking on the potential easing of restrictions. "I don't think the embargo is working."

But Cuba hardliners in Florida and New Jersey warn against the effects of loosening restrictions on travel and economic aid to Cuba, and have asked President Barack Obama to reconsider.

"We are deeply troubled that such changes would result in economic benefits to the Cuban regime and would significantly undermine U.S. foreign policy and security objectives," said U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Florida, ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee; Sen. Robert Menendez, D-New Jersey; and U.S. Reps. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, R-Florida; Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Florida; and Albio Sires, D-New Jersey; in a letter to Obama.

Richardson's visit coincides with an announcement Monday by the island's Roman Catholic Church that six more Cuban political prisoners would be freed soon.

The group's release would raise to 32 the number of prisoners set free since early July in a deal brokered with the church and Spain's Foreign Ministry.

The prisoners are a part of group of 75 dissidents imprisoned during a government crackdown on political opposition in March 2003.

Richardson called the releases a positive step in normalizing relations between the two Cold War foes.

"The Cubans have been releasing political dissidents and we're considering easing the travel restrictions," he said. "So that helps the atmosphere."