Congressional Black Caucus Meets With Castro Brothers

A seven-member Congressional delegation met with Cuban President Raul Castro and former Cuban leader Fidel Castro. It marks the first time either of the Castro brothers have met face-to-face with U.S. officials since Raul took over the Cuban presidency from Fidel 14 months ago. Tell Me More talks to Rep. Barbara Lee, a Democrat from California and head of the Congressional Black Caucus, who led the delegation.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up in our international briefing, we go to South Africa, where elections will be held later this month and the top contender to become the country's next president, Jacob Zuma, has just been cleared of corruption charges. We'll find out more in just a few minutes.

But first, we focus on Cuba. On Tuesday a seven-member congressional delegation returned from Cuba, where they met with Cuba's President Raul Castro.

The lawmakers - all Democrats and, all but one, members of the Congressional Black Caucus - were the first U.S. officials to meet with the Cuban president since he took over for his brother Fidel nearly 14 months ago. In another first, a smaller group from that delegation met with the former president, Fidel Castro, the only known meeting he has had with U.S. officials since stepping down. Congresswoman Barbara Lee, who represents California's Ninth District and chairs the Congressional Black Caucus, led the delegation. She is with us now on the phone. Congresswoman, thank you so much for joining us.

Representative BARBARA LEE (Democrat, California): Good to be with you today, Michel.

MARTIN: So why this trip and why now?

Rep. LEE: Why now? We have really a new direction in our foreign policy. We saw our president do a magnificent job recently on his visit to Europe in reshaping America's image and role in the world. Why not now? This is a moment where we need to review our policies as it relates to the embargo against Cuba - and first, allow American citizens to travel to Cuba. Many people don't realize, but this has been a 50-year-old embargo. It has not worked, and in fact it has done just the opposite.

It has isolated the United States. When you look at the majority of countries in the world, they have diplomatic and trade relations with Cuba. Fifteen countries - all the countries, actually, in Latin American do business with Cuba. And I say it's time to talk to Cuba. It's very important that a country 90 miles away have access to the American people. It's important that the American people have access to the Cuban people in terms of education, cultural and trade exchanges, and it's a policy that's flawed and it doesn't make any sense and we need to change it and change it soon.

MARTIN: Miami Herald columnist Myrium Marquez referred to the delegation as, quote, "the Clueless Seven". She says in her column, quote, "The delegation didn't make a fuss about 50 years of the Castro brothers' rule, the human rights violations, or the escalating and disproportionate number of black Cubans held behind bars." First of all, how do you respond to that and were human rights discussed in either of your meetings?

Rep. LEE: Let me just say, the purpose of this visit was to engage in discussions with the Cuban officials as it relates to what was required on their side to begin discussion around all of these issues. When you have an embargo and a blockade, you have no way to interact, you have no way to engage in any type of discussion. And so it doesn't make any sense to have preconditions because the issues that the United States wants to address and the issues that Cuba wants to address will never be addressed.

I have met in the past on many occasions, because I have been visiting Cuba and working to end this embargo since the mid-'70s, met with the dissident community, the Afro-Cuban community, on several occasions.

And let me just say that through these discussions that I understand all of those issues, which in talking to Cuban officials every issue would be on the table to discuss. But the majority - and you can check with them - the dissident community believes that the embargo should be lifted and normalization of relations should occur. That's just minimum…

MARTIN: Were human rights discussed with the Castro brothers? Either or both of them?

Rep. LEE: No, we discussed primarily what the United States government should know about any conditions or preconditions that would either impede or move forward a dialogue with Cuba. That was our mission and that's we want to know. All of the issues - and there are many, many issues that have to be addressed in addition to human rights issues, both on the Cuban side and on the American side - and we talked about making sure that whatever framework, if it ever happened - I understand, this is, we're members of Congress and we're making recommendations to the president, Speaker Pelosi, and secretary of state. But what we wanted to find out, were there any non-starters, you know, or were there any issues we needed to understand before any type of beneficial movements could be made?

MARTIN: Were there any non-starters?

Rep. LEE: We did not identify any. We were not given any. We were told over and over again that the Cuban government is willing to put all of the issues on the table once talks with regard to normalization began. If in fact they do begin.

MARTIN: Finally, Congresswoman, we only have about a minute left. None of the members of this delegation has any large numbers of Cuban-Americans in your district. So how are your own constituents reacting to your trip?

Rep. LEE: Well, let me say first of all, of the majority of American people, 68 percent of the American people, want normal relations with Cuba. The right to travel to Cuba should be and is a basic human right that we have prevented Americans from engaging in for 50 years. I think the American public wants to travel to Cuba. Members of the Congressional Black Caucus are engaged in this mission because it's the right thing to do. Historically we've been known as the conscience of the Congress and take on issues that others won't. And this is an example of that, and we were very pleased with our meetings and we know that this is not going to be easy.

And we intend to do the work that it takes to really make sure that the American people's will is enacted, and that is allowing for the free travel of Americans to Cuba…

MARTIN: Okay.

Rep. LEE: …and trade.

MARTIN: Okay.

Rep. LEE: Our businesses can benefit, as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has said.

MARTIN: All right, we have to leave with there. Congresswoman Barbara Lee represents California's Ninth District. She is the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus. She was kind enough to join us by phone. Congresswomen, thank you so much.

Rep. LEE: Thank you very much.

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