U.S. Delegation Probes Cuba for Hints of the Future The largest U.S. congressional delegation to visit Cuba since 1959 tried, but failed, to open a dialogue with Fidel Castro's brother, Raul. But they did meet with an array of high-level Cuban officials.

U.S. Delegation Probes Cuba for Hints of the Future

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep, good morning.

Coming up, we'll report on two Latin-American leaders. One is a U.S. ally who faces a corruption scandal. Then there's a U.S. opponent, who's making his nation a little more like Fidel Castro's Cuba.

MONTAGNE: We don't know how much longer it will be Fidel Castro's Cuba. And it's at this uncertain moment that a congressional delegation visited Havana. It was an effort to open a dialogue, now that the ailing president has ceded day-to-day authority to his brother Raul.

As it turned out, the lawmakers met neither Castro, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN: The official line members of Congress say they were given in Havana, was that Fidel Castro doesn't have cancer and plans to appear in public soon. He's been out of public view since late July, when he temporarily handed power to his brother Raul. Congressman Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican, expressed some disappointment that Raul Castro didn't meet the delegation from Washington.

Representative JEFF FLAKE (Republican, Arizona): Disappointed, but not surprised. The Cuban government doesn't seem to be ready to move beyond the Fidel era. And to have a meeting with Raul would have suggested that that era is done.

KELEMEN: Flake and nine other members of Congress did meet with Cuba's foreign minister, a top communist party official, and with the head of the National Assembly.

Rep. FLAKE: They seemed to be a lot more guarded in talking about what changes might come to the economy or politically. They didn't to say anything that would, perhaps, put them out of favor with those who might come in later.

KELEMEN: Still, Flake came away with some advice for U.S. policy makers. He says if Washington wants to promote a transition to democracy, it should ease travel restrictions, especially for students and for Cuban-Americans.

He'd also like to see Washington test Raul Castro's recent calls to open negotiations with the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Shannon has ruled out a dialogue with Raul Castro, saying the offer was nothing new.

Assistant Secretary THOMAS SHANNON (U.S. State Department): I mean, we're getting all kinds of advice in terms of what we should be doing with Cuba. And there's, you know, kind of genuine, kind of honest disagreement about how you best approach a regime like this.

KELEMEN: For now, the Bush administration has decided on a wait-and-see approach. Shannon told reporters last week that the Cuban regime is becoming harder and more orthodox as it gets closer to Fidel Castro's end. And he sees no reformers emerging.

Mr. SHANNON: It has been evident to us for over a year that as Fidel Castro got older, as he got more infirmed, as he approach his health crisis, that this was a regime that was locking down and was preparing for this moment of succession.

KELEMEN: But Congressman Gregory Meeks, a Democrat from New York, came away with a different impression from his weekend with the congressional delegation in Cuba.

Representative GREGORY MEEKS (Democrat, New York): We've just about met with everyone else that we wanted to meet with, with the exception of Raul. They were very accessible and very available and wiling to talk.

KELEMEN: They talked, Meeks said, about business opportunities.

Rep. MEEKS: They are willing to open up the opportunities for the American Tourism Industry to come and work in Cuba and open up those gates. So there's opportunities on both sides, and we need to change the direction in which we're going in. And I think that we're going to explore that in Washington in the coming months ahead.

KELEMEN: Meeks, who's on the House International Relations Committee, predicts lots of hearings and some legislative moves to try to chip away at the U.S. embargo on Cuba. Congressman Flake would also like to see the embargo ease, though he doesn't really believe the Cubans want too many American tourists.

Rep. FLAKE: Let them deal with spring break a few times and see how it is. If somebody is going to restrict travel, I think it ought to be a communist government - not our government.

KELEMEN: The Bush administration, though, has tightened the travel restrictions in recent years and tightened the embargo to try to undermine the communist party's grip on power.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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