Cubans rebuff latest bid to help jailed American

Reuters News
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Posted: Sep 09, 2011 3:39 PM
Cubans rebuff latest bid to help jailed American

By Jeff Franks

HAVANA (Reuters) - A U.S. diplomatic trouble-shooter in Cuba on a "private" visit to seek the release of jailed American aid contractor Alan Gross complained on Friday he had not been allowed to see Gross and vowed to stay on the communist-ruled island until he is.

This dampened hopes that the trip by former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson could bring a quick resolution to the Gross case, which has put U.S.-Cuba relations on ice after a brief warming under U.S. President Barack Obama.

Gross, 62, is serving a 15-year sentence after being convicted by a Cuban court in March for bringing Internet communications equipment into Cuba under a secretive U.S. pro-democracy program. He was detained in late 2009.

Richardson, who has acted as a diplomatic trouble-shooter for Democratic administrations, said Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez told him without explanation on Thursday "it was not possible" to see Gross.

"It was an understanding, very clear, that the reason I was coming was to see Alan Gross," Richardson told reporters at Havana's Hotel Nacional. "I hope they let me see Alan Gross, but until I see him I'm not leaving."

Richardson, who unsuccessfully sought Gross' release in a visit to Cuba last year, said the disagreement did not mean this trip was equally doomed to failure. He has described his current visit as "private."

"I came here in good faith, I've had good conversations, this issue is not over," he said.

The Obama administration, which says Gross was helping Cuba's Jewish community get better Internet access and has done nothing wrong, has said there will be no further rapprochement with the island until he is freed.

Obama, who took office in early 2009, had promised to "reset" relations with Cuba. He eased the long-standing U.S. trade embargo against the island by loosening restrictions on travel to the island and the sending of remittances.

'KEY TO IMPROVING RELATIONS'

Richardson said he had not come to Cuba as an envoy for Obama, but had consulted with the U.S. State Department.

A State Department spokesman on Wednesday expressed support for his efforts to obtain Gross' release.

Richardson, who has previously served as an informal U.S. interlocutor with both Cuba and North Korea, said he met for three hours with Rodriguez and had more meetings scheduled, although he did not say with whom.

"My main message is that the key to improving relations between the U.S. and Cuba, which has been one of my objectives, is the release of American Alan Gross," Richardson said.

The Cubans have expressed sympathy for Gross' plight -- several of his family members are ill and his own health has deteriorated. They point to the situation of five Cuban agents jailed in the United States for spying since 1998.

U.S. officials have so far ruled out any exchange.

Gross said in his trial that he never intended harm to Cuba and had been "duped" into doing work Cuba considers subversive.

His lawyer in Washington, Peter Kahn, welcomed Richardson's efforts in a statement on Wednesday and said he was "pleased that the Cuban government invited Gov. Richardson to Havana."

The Cubans have not confirmed that he was invited, but Richardson said he was, while remaining vague about details.

Richardson served as energy secretary and Washington's ambassador to the United Nations during the Clinton administration and was briefly a candidate for the Democratic nomination in the 2008 U.S. presidential election.

He visited North Korea in December 2010 to ease tensions with Pyongyang over its nuclear program and relations with South Korea.

(Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Mohammad Zargham)