Members of the American Congressional Black Caucus have taken part in the first meeting of U.S. officials with former President Fidel Castro since he became ill in 2006. The caucus chairwoman says Cuba wants normal diplomatic relations with the United States and, with a new U.S. administration, it is time to look for a change in American policy toward Cuba:
California Congresswoman Barbara Lee - one of three lawmakers of a larger U.S. delegation who met with the elder Castro - told reporters in Washington Tuesday that, in the nearly two-hour meeting, she has found the 82-year-old Fidel Castro "healthy, energetic and clear-thinking."
"He has always been engaging, very specific, very clear, very talkative, very energetic, has a lot of bold ideas, but has always said that the Cuban people were friends of the American people and wanted to see normal relations take place. That has been consistent over the years that I have been in meetings with him," Lee said. "His health, course, he's been ill, but I think we will agree that he was very healthy, very energetic and very clear-thinking, and he was very engaging and his wife was very congenial, hospitable. And, as Congressman [Bobby] Rush said, they live in very modest means and it was quite a moment to behold."
Another member of the delegation, California Congresswoman Laura Richardson, said Mr. Castro knew her name and was well aware of what was going on.
"But, what really was amazing to me was he leaned in, he looked directly into our eyes, quite aware of what was happening and said to us, 'How can we help? How can we help President Obama?" said Richardson.
The meeting came a day after the larger, seven-member congressional delegation held several hours of talks with Fidel Castro's younger brother, 77-year old Raul, who became president last year, in the wake of his older brother's illness. Congresswoman Lee says the lawmakers did not go to Cuba to negotiate with the rulers of the communist-run government, but observe what is taking place, talk with people and offer recommendations to the Obama Administration.
"We're convinced that the Cuban government, and President Raul Castro said this also, that everything is on the table, discussion, dialogue, no precondition.," said Lee.
Paraphrasing President Raul Castro, Lee said 'We'll talk about all the issues that need to be addressed as long as there's mutual respect and a recognition of the sovereignty of both countries.' And, I think that if we would move in that direction, based on those principles, we'd see some great things happen."
Congresswoman Lee says the message to the delegation is very clear.
"They are communicating their willingness and their desire to sit down and have dialogue and discussions leading, hopefully, to normal diplomatic relations," added Lee.
Congresswoman Lee says the delegation's conclusion is that, given the new direction of American foreign policy under the Obama Administration, it is time to move in a different direction.
She says the nearly 50-year embargo of the island has not worked. She says American citizens should have the right to travel to Cuba and that American business believes it is in America's economic interest to do business with Cuba.
Ms. Lee has co-sponsored a bill to lift a travel ban on American visits to Cuba. There is similar legislation pending in the Senate.
The Obama Administration has signaled the president will move soon to ease some travel restrictions against Cuba, perhaps ahead of next week's Summit of the America's in Trinidad and Tobago. President Obama has said he would be willing to speak with Cuba's leaders, but would maintain the embargo as leverage to push for democratic change and an improvement in human rights.