Richardson "disappointed" after Cuba mission flops

Reuters News
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Posted: Sep 13, 2011 4:28 PM
Richardson "disappointed" after Cuba mission flops

By Jeff Franks

HAVANA (Reuters) - Former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson said on Tuesday he was ending a visit to Cuba after failing to see a jailed American contractor and that he feared the island's Communist government did not want to improve ties with the United States.

The surprise arrival of the U.S. diplomatic trouble-shooter

in Cuba last week had raised hopes for the possible release of Alan Gross, 62, whose imprisonment by Cuban authorities had put a freeze on relations between Havana and Washington.

Gross is serving a 15-year sentence after being convicted of breaking Cuban law by bringing in Internet communications equipment under a secretive U.S. program aiming to promote political change on the Caribbean island.

Richardson, a Hispanic Democrat who has acted as an informal diplomatic envoy for Democratic presidents, said he was "very disappointed" and "very surprised" at his treatment on a private visit he said was made at Cuba's invitation.

"I have had positive relations with the government of Cuba for many years and they invite me and then tell me that I can't even make the humanitarian gesture of visiting (Gross) in the hospital after many other Americans have visited him," he told reporters in Havana.

"My conclusion is that maybe the Cuban government has decided that it does not want better relations with the United States," he said. "Maybe that's the message they send to a friend, maybe now an ex-friend."

U.S. President Barack Obama's administration has made clear that, without the release of Gross, moves to improve bilateral ties will not advance.

The contractor's family has sought his release on humanitarian grounds, saying his health has suffered in Cuban detention and because his daughter and mother have cancer.

Richardson arrived in Cuba on September 7 and postponed his planned Saturday departure, demanding to be allowed to visit Gross. But now, he said, there was no reason to stay and he would leave on Wednesday.

He also visited Cuba in August 2010 to try to seek Gross' release. After his latest failed attempt, Richardson said he could no longer "have a useful role" in the case.

(Reporting by Jeff Franks; Editing by Pascal Fletcher and John O'Callaghan)