Ex-NM Governor Won’t Leave Cuba Without Seeing Jailed American

Posted September 9th, 2011 at 4:25 pm (UTC-5)
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Former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson says he will not leave Cuba until he is allowed to see U.S. contractor Alan Gross, who is serving 15 years in prison for crimes against the communist state.

Richardson said Friday he had met for three hours with Cuban foreign minister Bruno Rodriguez and was surprised to be told that it would not be possible to visit the jailed American. He said he had planned his visit to the Communist island with the understanding he would be allowed to visit Gross, whose health is deteriorating.

Richardson is in Cuba trying to negotiate Gross' release. The ex-governor, who has often served as a diplomatic troubleshooter in Cuba and North Korea, says freeing Gross is “the key” to improving frosty relations between Washington and Havana.

The State Department said Wednesday Richardson was in Cuba as a private citizen, but said it supports his efforts to obtain Gross' release.

Richardson traveled to Cuba a year ago on a similar trip, meeting with Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez to discuss Gross' imprisonment. At that time, Richardson said he was told the case against Gross was at a very sensitive investigatory and legal point.

Last month, Cuba's Supreme Court rejected an appeal from Gross, who was arrested by Cuban authorities in December 2009 for bringing communications equipment into the country.

At the time of his arrest, Gross was working for a private firm that contracted with the U.S. Agency for International Development. He was accused of distributing Internet equipment and satellite phones to Cuban dissident groups. Gross said he was trying to improve Internet access for the island's small Jewish community and that his actions were not intended to be a threat against Cuba's government.

The White House has described the sentencing of Gross as “another injustice.”

His family has appealed on humanitarian grounds for the 62-year-old contractor to be returned home.

The United States and Cuba do not have formal diplomatic relations, only interests sections that are technically part of the Swiss embassies in each other's capitals.