(photo credit: AP)
A "very healthy, very energetic" Fidel Castro asked visiting Congressional Black Caucus members what Cuba could do to help President Barack Obama improve bilateral relations during his first meeting with US officials since falling ill in 2006.
Caucus leader Rep. Barbara Lee, a Democrat from California, said the ailing former Cuban president talked for nearly two hours with her and two other delegation members on Tuesday in a meeting seen as signaling Cuba's willingness to discuss better relations with the United States.
"We believe it is time to open dialogue and discussion with Cuba," Lee told a news conference in Washington upon the caucus members' return. "Cubans do want dialogue. They do want talks. They do want normal relations."
Lee said the group would present its findings to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a fellow Democrat from California, and White House and State Department officials.
California Democratic Rep. Laura Richardson, who also met Fidel with Illinois Democratic Rep. Bobby Rush, said Castro "looked directly into our eyes" and asked how Cuba could help Obama in his efforts to change the course of US foreign policy.
Richardson said she had the impression that 82-year-old Fidel wants to see changes in US-Cuba relations in his lifetime.
Lee said she found Castro "very healthy, very energetic, very clear thinking."
The surprise encounter came a day after the full delegation of six representatives spent more than four hours talking privately with Cuban President Raul Castro, his first encounter with US officials since formally replacing his brother as head of state nearly 14 months ago.
And it comes as Washington discusses whether to warm up long-chilly relations with Cuba. Obama has ordered an assessment of U.S. policy toward the communist nation and some members of Congress are pushing to lift a ban on Americans visiting the island.
Fidel Castro has not been seen in public since undergoing emergency intestinal surgery in July 2006 and it was his first meeting in several years with American officials. Although he gave up his presidential duties after becoming ill, he remains an influential force in Cuba.
In a column posted on a government Web site late Tuesday night, Castro wrote about his meeting with the three US representatives, saying Cuban leaders "weren't aggressors, nor did we threaten the United States."
"Cuba did not have any alternative but to take the initiative," he said in explaining why he sought the lawmakers' advice on what his country could do to help Obama improve bilateral relations.
He did not spell out exactly what they recommended, but applauded "the interest and depth with which they expounded on their points of view and the quality of their simple and profound words."
"The three reflected transparency, pride in their work, their organization and the fight for their country," Castro wrote. "It's evident that they know Obama and have confidence and security in, and sympathy for him."
Among the last US officials to see him face-to-face were state governors visiting the island separately on farm trade missions in 2005: Dave Heineman of Nebraska and Kathleen Blanco of Louisiana.
Lee's group was in Cuba five days on a trip meant to encourage dialogue between the United States and Cuba.
Jeffrey Davidow, the White House adviser for this month's Summit of the Americas, which Obama will attend, says the US president has no plans to lift the 47-year-old trade embargo against Cuba. But he says Obama will soon ease travel and financial restrictions affecting the island as his administration reviews its Cuban policy.
Lee's delegation is sympathetic to Cuba, with most of its members openly praising the country's communist government while decrying US policy.
Before the meeting with Fidel Castro was revealed, Lee said her group's talks with Raul Castro left lawmakers "convinced that President Castro sees normalization of relations and an end to the embargo as a benefit to both countries."
Bills in both houses of the US Congress would effectively bar any president from prohibiting Americans from traveling to Cuba except in extreme cases such as war.
Lee predicted the measures will be approved, but said that will not spell the end of the embargo.
"This would be a wonderful step, allowing American citizens the right to travel to Cuba, but much would follow after that," she said in an interview.
The lawmakers' meeting with Raul Castro touched on few specific issues, especially thorny ones like Cuba's checkered human rights record.
"We did not come to negotiate, we came to associate and cultivate," said Democratic Rep. Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri, another delegation member.
Asked about the lawmakers' trip, US State Department spokesman Robert Wood said members of Congress are free to go where they want and to discuss issues with world leaders.
"And I'm sure that the members of that delegation will be raising some of the concerns that the US government has with Cuba in terms of allowing Cubans to have the same rights and freedoms as (citizens of) other countries in the hemisphere," Wood said.