, HAVANA, Apr 8 – Several US lawmakers met with former president Fidel Castro and his brother and successor Raul Castro, amid signs of a thaw after 50 years of adversarial Cuban-US relations.
The Castro brothers have both said Cuba is ready for talks with the United States, while Representative Barbara Lee said she and her colleagues were hopeful US-Cuban relations would change for the better under US President Barack Obama.
"That’s why we’re here," she said after meeting Raul Castro on Monday.
The five-day visit by seven Democrats from the US Congressional Black Caucus, coincides with reports that Obama is planning to ease some aspects of the 47-year-old US economic embargo on Cuba.
Meanwhile, a proposal in the US Senate urges Obama to appoint a special envoy to review relations with Cuba.
Since their arrival here Friday, the US delegation has met with several top Cuban officials, including Parliament president Ricardo Alarcon and Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez.
On Monday, the lawmakers met with Raul Castro, 77, who took over from his ailing brother in July 2006, and in February of last year officially became Cuba’s president.
On Tuesday, a government statement said the president was ready to discuss "any matter" with the White House on the basis of "equal sovereignty … and the absolute respect for national independence and the inalienable right to self-determination."
Cuba’s position "has been clearly laid out in several public occasions and coincides with the principles our country has maintained for 50 years," since the start of the Cuban revolution, added the text published in the official newspaper Granma.
After their four-hour meeting, Lee told reporters the discussions focused on improving bilateral and economic relations between the two countries.
She described the talks with Raul Castro as frank and wide ranging, adding that she and her colleagues felt sure the Cuban leader was aware that normalizing relations with Washington and ending the US embargo on Cuba would be mutually beneficial.
Lee said the talks also touched on establishing a US-Cuban dialogue with no pre-conditions, and that she would convey to the White House the message that the time to talk with Cuba is now.
A meeting between Fidel Castro, 82, Lee and two of her colleagues took place Tuesday in Havana, just before the US lawmakers took a flight back home.
On her arrival to Washington, Lee said Fidel appeared in good health. "He seemed very energetic. We met at his house, a house of very modest means. His wife was there, his son was taking photographs of us," Lee told CNN.
"It was a very moving meeting, in some sense, because he was taking notes," Lee said. "He was very inquisitive, he asked us to send him more information about Dr King Jr. because he reveres Martin Luther King Jr."
Fidel Castro dropped from public view after he was hospitalized in July 2006, and has since only appeared in photographs and videos with visiting dignataries, giving rise to frequent rumours about his frail health.
The outreach came after Fidel Castro said Sunday in an online article that Cuba welcomed a dialogue with the United States.
Castro said the 47-year-old US economic embargo on Cuba was a "total failure" and backed US Republican Senator Richard Lugar’s recent proposal that the White House appoint a special envoy to review relations with Cuba.
"Those who can quietly analyze the facts, like the Indiana senator, have an indisputable argument: after nearly half a century, the US measures against Cuba are a total failure."
In a separate article, Fidel Castro called on Latin American nations to support an end to his country’s isolation by opposing the US embargo on Cuba at the Summit of the Americas Obama will attend April 17-19 in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago.
In Washington, Lee said her visit to Cuba was intended to sound out Cuban officials and to recommend Obama and other officials "why we believe normal relations between US and Cuba should move forward."
While campaigning last year, Obama said he was open to new dialogue with Washington’s adversaries, including Cuba, and as president he has moved to lift some restrictions on US citizens travelling to Cuba and to ease cash transfers to the island.