Fidel Castro is 'very healthy,' lawmakers say after meeting

McClatchy NewspapersApril 7, 2009 

WASHINGTON — The Castro government is interested in talking to the United States, a delegation of members of Congress said Tuesday after returning from a five-day trip to Cuba where they met with President Raul Castro, and his brother, Fidel, the former president.

However, the group of seven lawmakers, which included six members of the Congressional Black Caucus, said they didn't discuss whether Cuba was prepared to offer any concessions in return.

"We didn't get into any of the details,'' said caucus chairwoman Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., who led the trip. "We just want to see a dialogue. You don't have to offer anything to talk.''

The group spent four hours with Raul Castro, including dinner. Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., described Raul as "very engaging'' and said that he "laughed at himself."

Rush said the visitors to Raul Castro's home were greeted by his wife. He lives "not in some magnificent estate, but a modest home."

"He was a down-to-earth kind man, someone who I would favor as a neighbor,'' Rush said.

Three members met separately with Fidel Castro at his home. They described the aging leader, whose health has been the subject of much speculation since he fell ill in 2006, as "very engaging, very energetic . . . very talkative.'' Lee said Fidel Castro appeared "very healthy, very clear thinking.''

The visit marked the first meeting between Raul Castro and U.S. lawmakers since he took over as the country's leader a year ago and the first with the elder Castro since he took ill.

"It's time to talk to Cuba,'' Lee said. "We are convinced, based on the meetings, that the Cubans do want dialogue, they do want talks and they do want normal relations with the United States of America and I believe it's in the United States' best interest to do that.''

The visit came as President Barack Obama is expected to soon ease restrictions on family travel and remittances to Cuba and as both chambers of Congress consider bills that would permit all Americans to travel freely to Cuba.

The members of Congress said they plan to brief Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on the trip — and push the administration to go further.

Lee called Obama's plan to lift family restrictions "a necessary first step.'' Lee said, however, that she hopes to tell the administration "why we believe a full lifting of travel restrictions and the embargo makes a heck of a sense and the moment is now to do it.''

"Cubans want this also," she said. "We found an openness and a willingness to engage in all forms of normal relations.''

Obama said during the presidential campaign that he didn't plan to lift the nearly 50-year-old economic embargo on the island, and Vice President Joe Biden reiterated those remarks last month when he traveled to Chile. Supporters of current U.S. policy say that Cuba must make concessions, such as scheduling free elections and releasing political prisoners, before the U.S. makes a move.

Lee, however, said she thought that Obama should open negotiations without preconditions.

"What we're saying is two sovereign nations should be able to talk about their differences and what they have in common.'' She said Raul Castro told the group that, "Everything's on the table. Discussions, dialogue, no preconditions. We'll talk about all the issues that need to be addressed as long as there is mutual respect.''

Rep. Laura Richardson, D-Calif., said Fidel Castro "looked directly into our eyes'' and asked how Cuba could help Obama change U.S-Cuba policy.

She said she was left with the impression that the 82-year-old Fidel wants to see changes in U.S.-Cuba relations in his lifetime.

Richardson said the delegation was able to travel and speak freely and that two members officiated at Sunday church services.

The lawmakers didn't meet with any Cuban dissidents.

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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