- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 7, 2009

UPDATED:

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.


Greg Adams, a spokesman at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, which Washington keeps here instead of an embassy, confirmed Rep. Barbara Lee and two other legislators met with the 82-year-old Fidel Castro, but had no other details. He couldn’t provide the names of the two other lawmakers.

The visiting U.S. delegation, which was headed by Lee, a California Democrat, left Cuba without talking to reporters about the meeting with Cuba’s former president. In Washington, J. Jioni Palmer, a spokesman for the Congressional Black Caucus, said he had no further information.

Adams 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 news 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.

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