- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 8, 2009

HAVANA | 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 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, California Democrat and 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.”

She said they went to Fidel Castro's home, where they were greeted by his wife.

“We believe it is time to open dialogue and discussion with Cuba,” Mrs. Lee said, noting that the group would present its findings to White House officials, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, and State Department officials.

“Cubans do want dialogue. They do want talks. They do want normal relations,” she said.

Rep. Laura Richardson, California Democrat, who also met Fidel Castro with Rep. Bobby L. Rush, Illinois Democrat, said he “looked directly into our eyes” and asked how Cuba could help Mr. Obama in his efforts to change the course of U.S. foreign policy. She said she had the impression that Fidel Castro, 82, wants to see changes in U.S.-Cuba relations in his lifetime.

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 whether 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.

Mrs. 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 Mr. Obama will attend, said the U.S. president has no plans to lift the 47-year-old trade embargo against Cuba. But he said Mr. Obama will soon ease travel and financial restrictions affecting the island as his administration reviews its Cuban policy.

Mrs. 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, Mrs. 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.”

Raul Castro “said everything was on the table,” Mrs. Lee added.

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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