Cuba Grants U.S. Meeting With Castro

HAVANA (AP) - Signaling its willingness to discuss improved
relations with the Obama administration, Cuba on Tuesday granted
three visiting members of the Congressional Black Caucus the first
meeting with Fidel Castro by American officials since he fell ill
in 2006.

The surprise meeting came a day after the full delegation of six
representatives spent more than four hours talking privately with
Cuban President Raul Castro, his first encounter with U.S.
officials since formally replacing his brother as head of state
nearly 14 months ago.

The sessions occurred as Washington discusses whether to warm up
long chilly relations with Cuba. President Barack Obama has ordered
an assessment of U.S. policy toward the communist nation and some
members of Congress are pushing to lift a ban on Americans visiting
the island.

Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., current head of the 42-member
caucus, said at a news conference in Washington after the group's
return that lawmakers met for nearly two hours with Fidel Castro
and found him "very healthy, very energetic, very clear
thinking."

Rep. Laura Richardson, D-Calif., who also met Fidel with Rep.
Bobby Rush, D-Ill., said Castro "looked directly into our eyes"
and asked how Cuba could help Obama in his efforts to change the
course of U.S. foreign policy. Richardson said she had the
impression that 82-year-old Fidel wants to see changes in U.S.-Cuba
relations in his lifetime.

Raul Castro, added Lee, "said everything was on the table."

Greg Adams, a spokesman at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana,
which Washington keeps here instead of an embassy, said he expected the Cuban government to release details during the nightly newscast on state television, though it was not clear if photos or video of the encounter would be made public.

Fidel Castro has not been seen in public since undergoing
emergency intestinal surgery in July 2006 and it was his first
meeting in several years with American officials. Although he gave
up his presidential duties after becoming ill, he remains an
influential force in Cuba.

Among the last U.S. officials to see him face-to-face were state
governors visiting the island separately on farm trade missions in
2005: Dave Heineman of Nebraska and Kathleen Blanco of Louisiana.

Lee's group was in Cuba five days on a trip meant to encourage
dialogue between the United States and Cuba.

Jeffrey Davidow, the White House adviser for this month's Summit
of the Americas, which Obama will attend, says the U.S. president
has no plans to lift the 47-year-old trade embargo against Cuba.
But he says Obama will soon ease travel and financial restrictions
affecting the island as his administration reviews its Cuban
policy.

Lee's delegation is sympathetic to Cuba, with most of its
members openly praising the country's communist government while
decrying U.S. policy.

Before the meeting with Fidel Castro was revealed, Lee said her
group's talks with Raul Castro left lawmakers "convinced that
President Castro sees normalization of relations and an end to the
embargo as a benefit to both countries."

In commentaries Monday in state media, Fidel Castro said that
Cuba is not afraid to talk directly to the United States and that
the Cuban government does not thrive on confrontation as its
detractors have long claimed. He also welcomed the visit by the
U.S. lawmakers.

Opponents of the Castro government have long argued that while
Cuban officials publicly call for an end to the trade embargo, they
strive to antagonize Washington so it will keep the sanctions in
place. The critics say Cuban leaders want to be able to blame the
country's problems - from restricted public Internet access to
chronic food shortages - on trade sanctions.

A member of the visiting U.S. delegation, Rush of Illinois, said
he found the 77-year-old Raul Castro "to be just the opposite of
what is being portrayed in the media."

"I think that what really surprised me, but also endeared me to
him, was his keen sense of humor, his sense of history and his
basic human qualities," Rush said.

The American lawmakers were "in conversation with him as though
we were old family members," said Rush, who was once a Black
Panther.

"I intend to do everything that I can when we get back to the
States to make sure that normalization with our relationship with
Cuba is given proper consideration both within the House of
Representatives and the neighborhoods of America," Rush added.

Bills in both houses of the U.S. Congress would effectively bar
any president from prohibiting Americans from traveling to Cuba
except in extreme cases such as war.

Lee predicted the measures will be approved, but said that will
not spell the end of the trade embargo.

"This would be a wonderful step, allowing American citizens the
right to travel to Cuba, but much would follow after that," she
said in an interview.

The lawmakers' meeting with Raul Castro touched on few specific
issues, especially thorny ones like Cuba's checkered human rights
record.

"We did not come to negotiate, we came to associate and
cultivate," said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri.

Lee said the legislators would use their visit to prepare a
report for Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on the
situation in Cuba.

"Our basic message back to our country would be, it's time to
talk to Cuba," Lee said. "The time is now."

Asked about the lawmakers' trip, before the session with Fidel
Castro was reported, State Department spokesman Robert Wood said
members of Congress are free to go where they want and to discuss
issues with world leaders.

"And I'm sure that the members of that delegation will be
raising some of the concerns that the U.S. government has with Cuba
in terms of allowing Cubans to have the same rights and freedoms as
(citizens of) other countries in the hemisphere," Wood said.


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