HAVANA – Seven U.S. legislators began talks this weekend with Cuban government officials aimed at achieving a thaw in bilateral relations.
The visit coincided with a report in the U.S. financial press indicating President Barack Obama plans to lift restrictions on travel and remittances to the communist-ruled island, in fulfillment of a campaign promise.
U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee, who chairs the Congressional Black Caucus and led the delegation, said the legislators had not come with concrete proposals but rather to strike up talks on bilateral relations, telling reporters here Saturday at a press conference that she believes “it’s time to talk to Cuba.”
According to an official Cuban statement, the lawmakers held talks Saturday with Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez a day after meeting with parliament speaker Ricardo Alarcon.
In addition to Alarcon, the head of the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, Jorge Bolaños; and several Cuban lawmakers also attended Friday’s meeting.
The all-Democratic delegation is led by California’s Lee and includes Reps. Mel Watt of North Carolina, Bobby Rush of Illinois, Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri, Marcia Fudge of Ohio and Californians Laura Richardson and Mike Honda.
Texas Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee is expected to join the group in Havana on Monday.
“Thus far we’ve had a very productive visit. (Friday night) we met with Mr. Alarcon” with whom the lawmakers discussed several issues of bilateral concern, Lee said, without offering more details.
“We would love to meet with President Raul Castro and we’re waiting for (a decision to be made)” in that regard, she said.
The arrival of the U.S. lawmakers coincided with a report in The Wall Street Journal indicating that Obama plans to lift restrictions of travel and the sending of remittances to Cuba for Americans with family members on the island, in what could be an initial sign of improved relations with the Cuban government.
Citing an unnamed high ranking U.S. government official, the financial daily said, however, that Obama has no intention either of lifting the economic embargo on the island – a move that would require legislative approval – or making any specific diplomatic overture.
The two nations have not had full diplomatic relations for decades, but established interests sections in each other’s capitals in 1977 to handle consular matters. The United States imposed the embargo in 1962 and has said it will not be lifted until Cuba makes significant democratic reforms.
The travel measure would affect 1.5 million people in the United States who have family members on the island and could be announced before Obama travels to the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago, to be held from April 17-19.
Lee said the members of the delegation think that the steps Obama is taking with regard to Cuba are “in the right direction.” She said, however, that none of the lawmakers spoke with the president before traveling to the Caribbean island, although they did meet with State Department officials.
The head of the delegation – all of whom are members of the Congressional Black Caucus except for Honda – stressed the importance of understanding the full range of issues involving the United States and its close neighbor Cuba, and said the information they gather will be very useful once they return to Washington.
“I think the entire world is very optimistic about a shift in direction in terms of U.S. foreign policy throughout the world,” Lee said. “I know we do and that’s why we’re here.”
For his part, Rush said restoring relations between the United States and communist Cuba will require the work of “intelligent minds (and) brave and visionary people” and that in the end there must be a result in which both sides are winners.
Former President Fidel Castro, who formally ceded power to his younger brother early last year, wrote an article this week about the G-20 economic summit in London in which he said Obama is a much better president than his predecessor, George W. Bush, and his Republican rival in last November’s presidential election, John McCain.
Nevertheless, he said that “his thinking is not attuned to the real problems of the contemporary world” and that “the empire (the United States) is much more powerful than he or his good intentions.”
The lawmakers’ visit comes a few days after four U.S. senators – two Democrats and two Republicans – held a press conference in Washington to promote the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act of 2009.
A similar bill will be introduced in the House.
This is not the first time that Congress has tried to implement a change in U.S. policy toward Cuba, but the supporters of the initiative believe that the tide has turned in their favor, with the Democrats in control of both houses of Congress and the White House.
At the beginning of last month, Obama signed a $410 billion spending bill one of whose provisions eased the onerous restrictions the Bush administration imposed in 2004 on travel to Cuba by Cuban Americans, but that easing is set to expire Sept. 30.
Separately, the spokesman for one of the main dissident groups on the island, the Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation, Elizardo Sanchez, told Efe his organization is supportive of any and all efforts made to normalize U.S.-Cuba relations.
He added, however, that dissidents are “very concerned” at the lack of signs from President Raul Castro with respect to improvement in terms of human rights and basic liberties on the island. EFE