Tuesday, August 25, 2009

New Mexico governor makes "intriguing" Cuba visit

Mon Aug 24, 2009 8:11pm EDT

By Esteban Israel

HAVANA (Reuters) - New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, who has a history of diplomatic troubleshooting, may try to push U.S.-Cuba relations forward on what one expert called an "intriguing" visit to Cuba this week.

A spokeswoman in Santa Fe, New Mexico, said Richardson was to arrive in Havana on Monday and return home on Friday on a trip officially billed as a trade mission for New Mexico farm products.

A statement said the governor, who ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic presidential nomination last year, would be accompanied by several New Mexican officials whose primary aim is increasing the state's agricultural sales to the communist-led island.

Richardson, who was U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and energy secretary under President Bill Clinton, served as a special envoy on diplomatic missions to countries such as North Korea, Myanmar and Cuba.

In 1996, he met with then-Cuban leader Fidel Castro and negotiated the release of three political prisoners.

"His visit is intriguing because he has a record as a diplomatic troubleshooter. He knows Cuba, and he could play the same role for the Obama administration as President Clinton just played in North Korea," said Cuba expert Phil Peters of the Lexington Institute in Washington.

Earlier this month, Clinton went to North Korea on what was called a private humanitarian trip and procured the release of two U.S. journalists jailed on charges they entered the country illegally.

U.S. President Barack Obama has said he wants to "restart" long-hostile U.S.-Cuba relations and has eased the 47-year-old U.S. trade embargo against the island.

But he has said further lifting of the embargo will occur only if Cuba makes progress on political prisoners and human rights.

Cuba has said it is willing to discuss everything with the United States, but will make no unilateral concessions.

U.S. farm products are exempt from the embargo, which was imposed in 1962 in an attempt to undermine Castro, who transformed Cuba into a communist state after taking power in a 1959 revolution.

The New Mexico press release did not say with whom the delegation would meet. Richardson, it said, is paying his own expenses during the trip.

(Additional reporting by Jeff Franks; editing by Jeff Franks)