Cuba's Fidel Castro Meets U.S. Lawmakers

Three Democratic members of Congress had a rare meeting in Cuba on Tuesday with former Cuban leader Fidel Castro — his first known encounter with U.S. officials since he fell ill in 2006. And they came away convinced that the Cuban government wants to end a half-century of hostile relations with the U.S.

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Three Democratic members of Congress had a rare meeting yesterday in Cuba with Fidel Castro, his first known encounter with American elected officials since he fell ill in 2006. They came away convinced that the Cuban government wants to end half a century of hostile relations with the U.S. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELLE KELEMEN: Congresswoman Barbara Lee of California says she's met with Fidel Castro many times in years past, and on this trip she found him to be as talkative as ever.

Representative BARBARA LEE (Democrat, California): He has been ill, but I think we will agree that he was very healthy, very energetic, and very clear- thinking and engaging.

KELEMEN: The setting was Fidel Castro's home, which Bobby Rush, a congressman from Illinois, pointed out was more modest than one might think.

Representative BOBBY RUSH (Democrat, Illinois): We didn't go into some magnificent estate. He had a mere - modest home. And we were met at the front door by his lovely wife, and she was a very warm person. So it was almost like visiting an old friend.

KELEMEN: He says they talked a lot about Martin Luther King. Castro also apparently told the members of the Congressional Black Caucus that he wants to help President Obama succeed. The delegation did not meet with Cuban dissidents on this trip. The lawmakers spent four and a half hours with President Raul Castro over dinner one night.

And Congresswoman Lee says she's convinced that it's time for the new U.S. administration to open a dialogue with Cuba.

Rep. LEE: We have this window of opportunity now. We are in the process of reshaping our image and our role in the world. And where better to do that than 90 miles off the shore of America?

KELEMEN: President Obama is preparing to go to the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago later this month, and many in the region are hopeful that he will make some overtures to Cuba. The White House adviser on the summit, Jeffrey Davidow, told reporters at the State Department this week that President Obama is expected to ease some of the restrictions that the Bush administration put in place.

Mr. JEFFREY DAVIDOW (White House Adviser): We can expect some relaxation and changes in terms of the restrictions on family remittances and family travel. This does not include the lifting of the embargo.

KELEMEN: What's this means is that Cuban-Americans will soon be able to travel more easily to visit their families back on the island and send money to relatives. That's a nice gesture, says Carl Meacham, an adviser to the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Richard Lugar, but Meacham says he and Senator Lugar would like to see the Obama administration do something more: Name a special envoy on Cuba, and open up a more serious dialogue.

Mr. CARL LUGAR (Adviser to Senator Richard Lugar): We're looking for specific issues so we could actually make headway on some issues: migration, for instance, on the cooperation on drug trafficking. I mean, we all want to get to a situation here where we can talk about some of the more contentious issues, like human rights - that's an important issue - and greater freedoms for Cubans.

KELEMEN: He says the White House hasn't responded to Lugar's letter, but Fidel Castro has been praising the Republican senator from Indiana, and Meacham says that's a positive sign.

Mr. MEACHAM: They found the senator's letter and idea important enough to respond to it.

KELEMEN: Still, many in Congress oppose any move that could reward a repressive government that has changed little, despite the transfer of power from Fidel Castro to his brother. Davidow, the White House adviser, says Cuba remains an undemocratic state, and because of that, won't be part of the upcoming Summit of the Americas.

There will be other delegations to watch, including Venezuela and Bolivia, both friends of Cuba. Davidow says President Obama's goal is to develop good working relations with everyone in the hemisphere.

Mr. DAVIDOW: We would like to see our diplomatic interchange with all of the countries at the highest possible level. It's unfortunate that the governments of Venezuela and Bolivia themselves made the decision to expel our ambassadors. That's an unnatural situation, and we hope that that will change.

KELEMEN: Asked whether President Obama will meet with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Davidow said that the summit will offer, as he put it, ample opportunity for private discussions among the regional leaders.

Michelle Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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