* Gov. Richardson sees progress in talks on Alan Gross
* Cubans tell him case at "very sensitive" stage
* Says his trip to Cuba was just a trade mission
By Jeff Franks
HAVANA, Aug 26 (Reuters) - New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson said on Thursday he urged Cuba to release a U.S. contractor, Alan Gross, held on the communist-run island since December on suspicion of spying and felt he had made "inroads" in the case that has stalled U.S.-Cuba relations.
Richardson, who has a history of diplomatic trouble-shooting, said his talks with officials including Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez had given the Cuban government "a better understanding of the personal side of Alan Gross," but he appeared to extract no promises on Gross’ release.
"I believe I’ve made some inroads in the case. However, I was informed by the Cuban government that the Alan Gross case is at a very sensitive investigatory and legal process at this moment," said Richardson, who spoke to reporters at the end of what he said was a trade mission on peddling New Mexican food products to Cuba.
The Hispanic Democrat said he did not come as an emissary for U.S. President Barack Obama, but had been asked by the administration to raise the issue of Gross’ release.
He gave few details on his talks nor did he say if he would return for more discussions on Gross.
Richardson was United Nations ambassador and energy secretary under President Bill Clinton and served as a special envoy on diplomatic missions to countries including North Korea, Myanmar and Cuba.
In 1996, he met with then Cuban leader Fidel Castro and secured the release of three political prisoners.
The arrest of Gross in December had soured and slowed apparent rapprochement moves by Obama towards Castro’s government, seeking to defuse a half century of hostility.
Gross, who was in Havana on an assignment contracted by the U.S. Agency for International Development, has not been formally charged but Cuban officials said he was suspected of spying and subversion. They said he had been illegally distributing satellite communications equipment.
The Obama administration said he was not spying but was trying to help the Cuban Jewish community hook up to the Internet.
‘HE IS INNOCENT’
Cuba has long accused the United States, which maintains a 48-year-old trade embargo against the Caribbean island, of actively backing internal dissidents and Cuban exiles in efforts to undermine and destabilize its socialist system.
"I believe Alan Gross is a good man who may have made some mistakes. I think he is innocent," Richardson said.
He said he hoped the case would be resolved soon, but added, "I don’t want to get into what soon is."
Despite the Gross case, Richardson said the atmosphere between the United States and Cuba was "the best I’ve seen in years" and that both governments deserved credit for taking positive steps.
He cited Cuba’s recent decision to release 52 of its estimated 150 political prisoners and Obama’s expansion of travel opportunities for U.S. citizens.
Americans are generally banned by their own country from visiting Cuba, but Obama last year lifted restrictions on Cuban Americans’ travel to their homeland and is said to be considering further moves.
He also has backed pending legislation in the U.S. Congress to eliminate the travel ban.
"I am positive things are going to get a lot better," Richardson said of U.S.-Cuba relations.
(Additional reporting by Marc Frank and Rosa Tania Valdes; Editing by Eric Beech)