Former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson traveled to Cuba on Wednesday to seek the freedom of an American government subcontractor sentenced to 15 years in prison for bringing communications equipment into the island country.
The Obama administration is aware of Richardson's trip and is in contact with him, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.
"While Gov. Richardson is traveling as private citizen, we certainly support his efforts to obtain Alan Gross's release," she said.
Gross, a 62-year-old Maryland native, has been jailed in Cuba since December 2009.
Cuba says he was distributing satellite telephones and other communications equipment that are illegal to use without authorization.
Gross says he was only trying to help the Cuba's tiny Jewish community improve Internet access as part of a USAID-funded democracy-building program.
His continued imprisonment has become a major sticking point between Washington and Havana, dampening prospects for improving relations. His legal appeals exhausted, Gross and his supporters are now hoping to gain his release on humanitarian grounds.
Those who have met and spoken with him say Gross has lost 100 pounds while in custody, and both his elderly mother and adult daughter are suffering from cancer.
Peter J. Kahn, Gross' lawyer, said Richardson was traveling to Havana on invitation from the Cuban government.
"We welcome any and all dialogue that ultimately will result in Alan's release," Kahn said in a statement on behalf of Gross' family. "We are grateful to Gov. Richardson for his continued efforts. We hope that the governor and Cuban authorities are able to find common ground that will allow us to be reunited as a family."
In Havana, Cuban officials had no immediate comment on the development.