Andrea Mitchell of MSNBC
GOV. BILL RICHARDSON, D-N.M.
MITCHELL: Cuba is preparing to release six more political prisoners, just as the Obama administration is poised to ease some travel restrictions to the communist nation.
Former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson is in Havana right now for a trade mission for New Mexico, and joins us live from there. It's great to see you, Governor. Thanks so much. Great to see that backdrop there. We have been there so often and hope to visit again.
Let's talk about what you are hearing in Havana as to, first of all, whether or not there will be other prisoners released. This has been a negotiation between the Cuban government and the archdiocese there.
RICHARDSON: Well, this is good news that more were released. There's a total of 32 out of the 56. These are very positive steps that were negotiated by President Raul Castro and the Catholic Church and the Spanish foreign minister.
You know, this is good because it shows movement on the human rights issue, which is very important. At the same time, I am here not as an administration envoy. I'm trying to sell chili, salsa, green chili to the Cuban government. And I have two more days here in my visit.
But I think this is good news. These are positive steps that Cuba is taking, and that should be acknowledged.
MITCHELL: Do you think it will be acknowledged shortly by the White House? There's a lot of talk about the political blowback if the president takes further steps and reverts to basically what was in place during Bill Clinton's administration, which was that normal Americans could have cultural exchanges, could travel, not just Cuban Americans.
The restrictions, of course, were put under George W. Bush. Do you think that they should take that step and should they do it sooner rather than later?
RICHARDSON: Well, I would recommend that the administration take those steps sooner rather than later. I know they're considering it. Those are good steps. They're steps that send a message that we're easing up on travel restrictions, that educational, religious leaders will be permitted to travel like we had under President Clinton. These are confidence-building steps that I think make sense; that it's in the interest of the United States.
I've long advocated that we take the travel ban off of Americans. I don't think the embargo is working either. But as I said, my main mission here is a trade mission on behalf of my state, but I will be speaking to high officials in the Cuban government in the next couple of days and I'm sure a lot of these issues will come up.
MITCHELL: Are you also going to be pushing for the release of a jailed American, a USAID employee who has been subject to charges down there, Alan Gross?
RICHARDSON: Well, yes. The Obama administration has asked me to raise this. I intend to do that. This is Alan Gross, who I believe is somebody that should be released. But that's a decision the Cuban government is going to make. Yes, I will press on that, but at the same time, again, I'm -- I'm here as the governor of New Mexico. I know many of these Cuban officials. Hopefully, this release will happen sometime soon.
But this is an important part of the relations, confidence- building measures on both sides -- the Cubans releasing 56 prisoners of conscience, going to various countries -- Spain, others. Those are good steps. And this American is a contractor. He's a very good man. I've talked to his wife. It's a humanitarian case, purely humanitarian that I believe he should be released. But this is at a time when I sense the American-Cuban relationship is improving, and I think these confidence-building steps are good -- the travel on our side, if it happens, and hopefully it will, and then the Cubans taking these human rights steps and releasing prisoners.
So I sense a better atmosphere in the American-Cuban relationship, which has been very contentious for the last few years.
MITCHELL: Governor, do you expect to see Fidel Castro who we saw publicly at the National Assembly meeting giving a speech, looking as though he is stronger than ever and speaking out on foreign policy and some of the issues that you care about deeply.
RICHARDSON: Well, it's not on the schedule. I'm going to see a number of high officials, but that's not on the schedule and, you know, I'm not a head of state. I don't expect that. Again, Andrea, my trip is a trade mission, but I know a lot of people here and I believe the relationship should be improved. I hope the administration does move ahead with those easing of the travel restrictions, possibly others. I think that makes a lot of sense. It's good for the United States.
We need to get involved here. There's enormous potential for investment, but easing the travel ban is a way that Americans of all stripes, of all types can -- can visit the island. President Clinton did that. It moved in a good way the relationship. And hopefully, this will happen soon by the Obama administration. But like you, I've just seen these press reports, and again my hope is that they happen soon -- in fact before I leave; that would be very nice.
MITCHELL: Speaking of your travel, because I've traveled with you in the past. We went to Pyongyang and you had an unofficial emissary role there. Jimmy Carter is traveling to North Korea trying to get an American, a Boston citizen out of prison after he's been sentenced to eight years. What do you think the prospects are? You know exactly what former President Carter is up against there.
RICHARDSON: Well, I believe it's a good move by the administration, if it is the case. I've only seen reports. President Carter is very well thought of in North Korea, and this is an American, Mr. Gomes, who is not well. His health right now is not good. And again, it's a humanitarian issue. It doesn't involve the nuclear talks. It doesn't involve other differences that we have with North Korea and the peninsula.
So my hope is that President Carter can secure the release. It's going to be pretty hard to say no to a former president. So I'm encouraged, but you never know with the North Koreans. I've learned not to predict anything, but I'm glad the administration is considering this step by President Carter because he's well thought of. He went there in the '90s and was able to negotiate a nuclear agreement that was later ratified by the Clinton administration.
I know he's well thought of. I think it's an important step because this young man, an American, deserves to come home and he's -- he's not well. And this would be a humanitarian effort that hopefully will succeed.
MITCHELL: All right. So good to see you again, Governor Bill Richardson in Havana. Thanks so much.
RICHARDSON: Thank you.
MITCHELL: And thanks to everybody who helped arrange that interview today.
RICHARDSON: Thank you.