HAVANA (AP) — A surprise visit by former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson has revived hope Cuba may soon free a U.S. government subcontractor whose imprisonment has snarled efforts to improve relations between the two countries. A senior Cuban official praised Richardson on Thursday while describing the jailed American as a “victim.”

Parliament Chief Ricardo Alarcon, normally a leading voice on issues concerning the United States, said he had no idea whether Richardson would be allowed to leave the island with Maryland native Alan Gross, who is serving a 15-year sentence for bringing communications equipment into Cuba illegally.

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“I don’t know what Bill’s program here involves,” Alarcon said. “I’m not a fortune teller.”

But the parliamentarian also offered measured words about Gross, who was working on a USAID-funded democracy-building program when he was arrested in December 2009.

“It is a shame that this gentleman has been a victim of politics,” he said. “They’ve used him.”

Alarcon also lauded Richardson’s efforts to improve ties between Washington and Havana, including advocating freedom for five Cuban agents serving long jail terms in the United States. Richardson’s effort toward rapprochement “is something legitimate.”

“It is something noble. I hope it gets results,” Alarcon said.

Washington has long insisted that the case of Gross has nothing in common with those of the five Cuban agents, who were convicted in Miami in 2001 and given long prison sentences, and that a prisoner exchange is not possible. The “Cuban Five” are considered national heroes by Havana, which says they were monitoring militant anti-Castro groups in the United States to prevent bomb attacks and posed no threat to U.S. national security.

Since his arrival Wednesday, Richardson has kept tightlipped about his visit, though he indicated Thursday morning he was not expecting an immediate result.

“I have nothing to say,” the former governor told The Associated Press as he and two assistants ducked out of Havana’s famous Hotel Nacional wearing shorts and T-shirts for an early morning stroll along the capital’s seafront Malecon thoroughfare.

“I’ll talk to you in a few days.”

Richardson, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, has a working relationship with Cuba’s leaders and a long history of winning the release of prisoners in Cuba and elsewhere.

The visit, which was kept under wraps until Richardson landed, was the first sign that intensifying calls for the 62-year-old Gross’ release might bear fruit after months of false hopes and bitter disappointment that have overwhelmed efforts at improved relations between the two Cold War enemies.

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State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Thursday that President Barack Obama’s administration has been in touch with Richardson, and expected to hear more about his discussions later in the day after he finished speaking with senior Cuban officials.

“We wish him every success in this very important mission,” Nuland said.

Cuba says Gross was distributing satellite telephones and other communications equipment that are illegal to use without authorization. It has also called the USAID-funded democracy program that he was on a thinly veiled attempt at overthrowing the government.

Gross has said that he was only trying to help Cuba’s tiny Jewish community improve Internet access, and that he had no desire to offend the country’s communist government. In court testimony from March that was released last week by his own lawyer, Gross described himself as a “trusting fool.”

“I was duped. I was used. And my family and I have paid dearly for this,” the Maryland resident told the tribunal.

The court was apparently unmoved, convicting him of crimes against the Cuban state. The decision was later upheld by the nation’s Supreme Court, leaving the American with no legal recourse.

That has led to growing appeals for Gross’ release on humanitarian grounds. Those who have met and spoken with him say Gross has lost 100 pounds (45 kilos) while in custody, and both his elderly mother and adult daughter are suffering from cancer, among other hardships the family has endured.

Richardson was last in Havana in August 2010, when he met with Cuba’s foreign minister and appealed for Gross’ release. As a congressman in 1996, Richardson secured the liberation of three island political prisoners during talks with former Cuban leader Fidel Castro in Havana.

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter also raised Gross’ case at the highest levels of government during a trip to Havana in March. The former president was received warmly by Fidel and current Cuban President Raul Castro and was even allowed to talk with Gross in jail, but he left empty-handed.

Even before Gross was convicted, a senior State Department official said in January that she had received assurances from the Cuban government that he would soon be freed on humanitarian grounds. But optimism faded in recent months, as Cuban prosecutors sought and then won a stiff jail sentence against the American.

Gross’ lawyer, Peter J. Kahn, said he welcomed Richardson’s latest visit, which he said was undertaken at the invitation of Cuban authorities. He said he hoped it would lead to his client’s freedom.

“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.”

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