Fidel Castro Meets With 3 U.S. Lawmakers

Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., front, reacts during a news conference in Havana, Tuesday, April 7, 2009.
AP Photo/Javier Galeano
Fidel Castro met with three members of the Congressional Black Caucus on Tuesday, marking the former Cuban president's first meeting with American officials since he fell ill nearly three years ago.

Coming after lawmakers met with his brother Raul, the current president, the session appeared to underscore the Cuban government's desire for improved relations with the United States under new President Barack Obama.

Greg Adams, a spokesman at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, said Rep. Barbara Lee, a California Democrat, and two other lawmakers met with the 82-year-old Castro.

A Foreign Ministry source told CBS News that in addition to Lee, Fidel Castro met with Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Illinois, and Laura Richardson, D-California. They did not have any information on how long their meeting lasted but by 2 p.m. local time all the lawmakers were on board a U.S. Air Force plane for their return home, reports CBS News producer Portia Siegelbaum.

Lee led a delegation of six Democratic representatives who left Havana after a five-day visit designed to encourage dialogue between the U.S. and Cuba. The legislators did not speak with journalists about meeting with Fidel Castro, and J. Jioni Palmer, a spokesman for the Congressional Black Caucus in Washington, said he had not heard about the session.

Adams said he expected the Cuban government to release more information about the meeting in state television's nightly newscast.

Castro, who clashed with every U.S. president since Dwight D. Eisenhower, has not been seen in public since undergoing emergency intestinal surgery in July 2006. He turned over his duties to his brother, five years his junior, then formally ceded power in February.

Raul Castro met with the six American legislators for more than four hours Monday night, his first face-to-face discussions with U.S. leaders since he became Cuba's president — a sign that both countries may be serious about improving nearly 50 years of frigid relations.

The visit to Cuba came as the Obama administration conducts a broad review of its policy toward the communist nation — and as some U.S. lawmakers press for an end to the travel bans that have prevented Americans from visiting the island.

At the end of a five-day visit to Cuba, members of the delegation expressed the conviction that the U.S. needs to open two-way trade with Cuba, reports Siegelbaum. At present, under a special 2001 exemption to Washington's economic and trade embargo, Cuba is permitted to purchase agricultural products on a cash-only basis.

"It was very clear to us, Cuba's desire to trade with the United States under normal diplomatic and trade relations," Lee said.

The Cubans have long argued that international trade is done using credits and not cash in advance and that being able to export Cuban products to the U.S. would give them more cash with which to buy American goods, Siegelbaum reports.

After the delegation's talks with Raul Castro, Lee said the meeting was constructive and the lawmakers would prepare a detailed look at everyday life in Cuba for the White House.

"We talked about all the issues necessary to normalize relations between our two countries," she said.

The 77-year-old Raul Castro, who holds the rank of four-star army general, wore a business suit instead of his trademark olive-green fatigues for the closed-door meeting that ended around midnight.

"I'm convinced Raul Castro wants a normal relationship with the United States," Lee told The Associated Press. "He's serious."

Delegation members said they discussed topics such as increased U.S.-Cuba trade and better cooperation in combating drug and human trafficking. But "we did not talk about specifics," Lee said at a news conference.

She did not answer questions about why the delegation failed to meet with any Cuban dissidents. Some past congressional trips to Cuba, though not all, have included meetings with opposition figures.

The Cuban government issued a statement calling the encounter "a broad exchange of ideas on many topics, with emphasis on the future evolution of bilateral relations and economic ties after the arrival of a new U.S. administration."

The meeting came the same day that Jeffrey Davidow, the White House adviser for the upcoming Summit of the Americas, said Obama will soon move to ease travel and financial restrictions on Cuba.

A commentary by Fidel Castro in state newspapers Monday said that Cuba is not afraid to talk directly to the United States and that the communist government does not thrive on confrontation as its detractors have long claimed.

Both Castro brothers have said for decades that they would be willing to talk personally with U.S. leaders. Currently, the countries do not have formal diplomatic relations.

In a second column posted late Monday night on a government Web site, the ex-president saluted the American legislators for traveling to the island, saying he "values the gesture of the legislative group."

"They are witnesses to the respect with which Americans who visit our homeland are always received," Fidel Castro wrote.

Lawmakers in both houses of Congress have proposed to largely eliminate bans on travel to Cuba, effectively lifting a key component of the embargo. The visiting representatives said they would support those efforts.