HAVANA — Fidel Castro met Tuesday with three members of the Congressional Black Caucus, the former Cuban president's first known meeting with American officials since he fell ill in July 2006.
A spokesman at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana confirmed that Rep. Barbara Lee, a California Democrat, and two other lawmakers met with the ailing, 82-year-old Castro. He did not have further details nor could he provide the names of the other American leaders who attended the meeting.
Lee led a delegation of six Democratic representatives who left Havana Tuesday after a five-day trip designed to encourage dialogue between the United States and Cuba, amid much speculation long-chilly relations may improve.
The delegation earlier met with Cuban President Raul Castro, Fidel Castro's brother. It was Raul Castro's his first face-to-face discussions with U.S. leaders since he became Cuba's president last year — a sign that both countries may be serious about improving nearly 50 years of frigid relations.
Broad review of Cuba policy
Monday's visit 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.
U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee, a California Democrat who traveled with the delegation, said the trip was constructive and that lawmakers would prepare a detailed look at everyday life in Cuba for the White House.
"We talked about all the issues necessary to normal relations between our two countries," said Lee.
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 after the meeting. "He's serious."
Trade and trafficking
Delegation members said they discussed topics as 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 during a Tuesday news conference.
She ducked questions about why the delegation failed to meet with any Cuban dissidents during the five-day trip that was due to end later Tuesday. Some past congressional trips to Cuba, though not all, have included meetings with dissidents.
Illinois Democratic Rep. Bobby Rush said he found Cuba's president "to be just the opposite of how he's being portrayed in the media."
The Cuban government issued a statement calling the encounter with Raul Castro "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."
Congressional delegations to Cuba are fairly common, but the late-night meeting was the first time Raul Castro, 77, has sat down with U.S. officials since he succeeded his ailing brother Fidel as president last February.
It came the same day 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.
Both brothers open to talks
Fidel Castro, who has not been seen in public since July 2006, wrote in state newspapers on Monday 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 members of the Congressional Black Caucus 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 a measure that wipe out bans on travel to Cuba except in extreme cases, effectively lifting a key component of the embargo. The visiting representatives said they would support those efforts.
Missouri Rep. Emanuel Cleaver said travel restrictions and the embargo as a whole had elevated U.S. foreign policy contradictions to "a new art form."
"How can a democracy, a nation of free people, not allow free travel by its free people?" he asked.
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