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Cuba visit renews hope over US convict

Richardson won’t discuss agenda

By Paul Haven
Associated Press / September 9, 2011

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HAVANA - A surprise visit by Bill Richardson, New Mexico’s former governor, has revived hope that Cuba may soon free a US government subcontractor whose imprisonment has snarled efforts to improve relations between the two countries, with a senior Cuban official praising the American politician yesterday and describing the jailed Alan Gross as a victim.

Parliament Chief Ricardo Alarcon, normally a leading voice on issues concerning the United States, said he had no idea whether Richardson would be allowed to leave the island with Gross, a Maryland native who is serving a 15-year sentence for bringing communications equipment into Cuba illegally.

“I don’t know what Bill’s program here involves,’’ Alarcon said. “I’m not a fortune teller.’’

But the parliamentarian also offered measured words about Gross, who was working on a USAID-funded democracy-building program when he was arrested in December 2009.

“It is a shame that this gentleman has been a victim of politics,’’ he said. “They’ve used him.’’

Alarcon also lauded Richardson’s efforts to improve ties between Washington and Havana, including advocating freedom for five Cuban agents serving long jail terms in the United States.

Richardson’s rapprochement effort “is something legitimate. It is something noble. I hope it gets results,’’ Alarcon said.

Washington has long insisted that the case of Gross has nothing in common with those of the five Cuban agents, who were convicted in Miami in 2001, and that a prisoner exchange is not possible. The “Cuban Five’’ are considered national heroes by Havana, which says they were monitoring militant anti-Castro groups in the United States to prevent bomb attacks and posed no threat to US national security.

Since his arrival Wednesday, Richardson has kept tightlipped about his visit, though he indicated yesterday morning he was not expecting an immediate result.

“I have nothing to say,’’ the former governor said as he went for a morning stroll in Havana. “I’ll talk to you in a few days.’’

Richardson, a former US ambassador to the United Nations, has a long history winning prisoner releases and has a working relationship with Cuba’s leaders.

The visit, which was kept under wraps until Richardson had landed, was the first sign that intensifying calls for the 62-year-old Gross’s release might bear fruit after months of false hopes and bitter disappointment that have overwhelmed efforts at improved relations between the two Cold War enemies.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Wednesday that the Obama administration was aware of the trip and was in contact with Richardson.

“While Governor Richardson is traveling as a private citizen, we certainly support his efforts to obtain Alan Gross’s release,’’ Nuland said.

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