U.S. delegation says Cuba wants better relations

HAVANA Tue Apr 7, 2009 7:58pm BST

1 of 4. Cuba's President Raul Castro (L) shakes hands with U.S. Congresswoman Barbara Lee during a meeting in Havana April 6, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Geovani Fernandez/Handout

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HAVANA (Reuters) - Members of the U.S. Congress who held a lengthy meeting with Cuban President Raul Castro, said on Tuesday they were convinced he wants to end 50 years of hostility between the two countries.

U.S. Representative Barbara Lee, leader of the delegation, said the six Democrats would return to Washington after the 4 1/2-hour meeting on Monday night with a simple message: "It's time to talk to Cuba. The moment is now."

The visit came at a time of possible change in U.S.-Cuba relations, spurred by President Barack Obama's promises to take steps toward normalizing ties with the island 90 miles from Florida.

But moving forward may still be difficult in the face of opposition from some in the powerful Cuban-American community and their political allies who view the communist government in Havana with deep suspicion.

The delegates said they avoided specifics with Castro, but were struck by his humor, impressed by his involvement in Third World causes and firm in their belief that he wants to end U.S.-Cuba enmity.

"All of us are convinced that President Castro would like normal relations and would see normalization, ending the embargo, as beneficial to both countries," Lee told reporters. The United States has maintained a trade embargo against Cuba since 1962.

"It was a very good meeting. It was very open and we discussed a wide range of issues," said Lee, who chair the Congressional Black Caucus.

The meeting was front-page news in the ruling Communist Party's Granma newspaper on Tuesday, which said the discussion covered various topics "with emphasis on the possible future evolution of bilateral relations and economic ties."

Castro, the article said, made clear Cuba's long-standing position that it was prepared to talk about anything with the United States, while insisting on "absolute respect" for independence and national sovereignty.

A column by Castro's older brother and former Cuban leader, Fidel Castro, in the same newspaper on Monday said Cuba did not fear dialogue with the United States and praised U.S. Senator Richard Lugar for recently urging engagement with Cuba.

Lee said the delegation would report to Obama and the State Department before the April 17 Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago, which Obama will attend.

News reports have said Obama will shortly lift restrictions on family travel and remittances between Cuba and the United States, perhaps before the summit. Congress is considering bills that would eliminate a ban on Americans visiting Cuba.

Obama has said he would maintain the trade embargo until Cuba shows progress on human rights and democracy, which Lee said the delegation discussed only generally with the Cubans.

(Editing by Tom Brown and Alan Elsner)