HAVANA/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Former Cuban leader Fidel Castro seemed alert and energetic on Tuesday in his first known talks with U.S. officials in years, and asked how to best help U.S. President Barack Obama normalise relations between their countries, U.S. lawmakers said.
“Of course, he has been ill. But I think we will agree that he was very healthy, very energetic, very clear thinking,” said Representative Barbara Lee.
Lee, flanked by fellow members of the Congressional Black Caucus, made the comments at a news conference in Washington just hours after three of them met with Fidel Castro in Cuba.
These were the first known talks between U.S. officials and Fidel Castro, 82, since he underwent surgery in July 2006.
The full seven-member U.S. delegation met with President Raul Castro, who took over from his ailing brother last year.
The meetings took place at a time of possible change in hostile U.S.-Cuba relations, spurred by Obama’s vow to move towards normalizing ties with the communist-ruled island, 90 miles (145 km) from Florida.
The United States has maintained a trade embargo against Cuba since 1962. The U.S. policy of isolating Havana began soon after Fidel Castro took power in 1959.
Lee, who led the U.S. group, and the others in the delegation said Fidel Castro appeared eager to try to improve links between the countries.
“He was very well aware of what was going on,” Representative Laura Richardson told the Washington news conference.
“As he leaned in, he looked directly into our eyes, quite aware of what was happening, and said to us ‘how can we help President Obama?’”
News reports have said Obama will shortly lift restrictions on family travel and remittances between Cuba and the United States. The U.S. Congress is considering legislation 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.
Representative Bobby Rush also attended the meeting with Fidel Castro, which was requested after the U.S. delegation arrived to talk with his brother and other Cuban leaders.
Lee said it seemed as if Fidel Castro, long seen as the power in Cuba, was now focussed on writing and reflecting.
“I didn’t get a sense that he was playing any role” in the Cuban government, Lee said after the news conference.
Members of the U.S. delegation, who held a lengthy meeting on Monday night with Raul Castro, said they were convinced the Cuban president wanted to end 50 years of hostility between the two countries.
Lee said the delegation brought a simple message to Washington after their five-day trip: “It’s time to talk to Cuba. The moment is now.”
But moving forward in U.S.-Cuban relations may be difficult in the face of opposition from some in the powerful Cuban-American exile community and their political allies who view the communist government in Havana with deep suspicion.
The meetings with the Castros “mean that the Cuban government took the delegation seriously and perhaps had some messages for it to carry back,” said Cuba expert Phil Peters at the Lexington Institute in Washington.
But, Peters said, “It’s too early to conclude that a big change in U.S. policy, or in U.S.-Cuba relations, is in the cards.”
The talks with Raul Castro were 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.”
Raul Castro, the article said, made clear Cuba’s 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 Fidel Castro in the same newspaper on Monday said Cuba did not fear dialogue and praised U.S. Republican Senator Richard Lugar for urging engagement with Cuba.
Lee said the U.S. 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.
Additional reporting by Donna Smith and Esteban Israel; Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Vicki Allen