New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson said Wednesday that he's just a governor on a trade mission and carries no message from the U.S. government as he visits Cuba this week. But he does plan to report his impressions to President Barack Obama.
Richardson spoke outside Havana while visiting Ernest Hemingway's former home, where he donated a replica of a telephone used by Hemingway to curators on behalf of his state. He said all U.S. citizens should be able to visit such cultural gems.
"I think enhancing cultural and artistic and educational ties is a prelude to diplomatic and commercial ties. It always happens that way," Richardson told The Associated Press.
"I'm for enhanced tourism travel for Americans." Richardson said that travel should go beyond the so-called people-to-people educational and cultural contacts promoted by the Bill Clinton administration.
Richardson insisted he is not in Cuba on Washington's behalf and is not bringing any message from the U.S. government. But he is meeting with senior Cuban officials, including a scheduled encounter Thursday with Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez and a Monday meeting with Ricardo Alarcon, president of parliament.
So far, everyone has brought up the U.S. embargo and other aspects of U.S. policy, Richardson said, without elaborating.
"I'm not an envoy of the (Obama) administration. I'm carrying no message. I'm here as a governor seeking agricultural trade," he said.
"Obviously I do plan to submit my impressions to the administration after I conclude," he said. "I will do that as a citizen and as a governor. They're my impressions alone."
As a congressman, Richardson secured the release of three Cuban political prisoners during talks with then-President Fidel Castro in Havana in 1996. As U.N. ambassador in 1997, he held talks on terrorism with then-Foreign Minister Roberto Robaina.
Richardson supported Obama's declaration during last year's U.S. presidential campaign that he would be open to meeting current President Raul Castro without preconditions. The governor also has opposed lifting the U.S. embargo, while advocating negotiations with Cuba to promote human rights.
The Obama administration has relaxed restrictions on Cuban Americans' travel and money transfers to family on the island. Most U.S. citizens cannot visit _ technically, the U.S. Treasury Department bars them from spending money in Cuba _ in tandem with the U.S. embargo imposed in 1962 to weaken Cuba's Communist government.
The U.S. and Cuba also are resuming talks on migration and direct mail, but they have sparred over a U.S. suggestion that Havana release its political prisoners. Cuba insists that any dialogue have no preconditions.
Richardson and state Cabinet officials are promoting exports of New Mexico beef, corn, wheat, potatoes and apples. Despite the embargo, U.S. states can sell agricultural and certain other products to Cuba, though sales on credit are prohibited.
To promote cultural ties, New Mexico will inaugurate an exhibition of Cuban modern art next week.