Cuba: 'Its time to talk' say US lawmakers

HAVANA, Apr 7 (IPS) - Seven Democratic congresspersons from the U.S. concluded that it is possible to talk about any issue with Cuba and that 'it is time' to do so, at the end of a five-day visit during which they met with both Raúl and Fidel Castro.

'Our basic message back to our country would be, it's time to talk to Cuba. The time is now,' said Rep. Barbara Lee of California, who led the congressional Black Caucus delegation that arrived in Havana on Friday, Apr 3 to 'learn and talk' and explore the possibilities of a thaw in relations between the two countries.

The visiting lawmakers met for over four hours on Monday with President Raúl Castro. 'It was a very good meeting. It was very open and we discussed a wide range of issues,' Lee told reporters.

'All of us are convinced that President Castro would like normal relations and would see normalisation, ending the embargo, as beneficial to both countries,' said the congresswoman, who is chair of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Castro, she added, 'said everything was on the table.'

A statement by the Cuban government published Tuesday said that a number of issues were addressed in the meeting, 'with an emphasis on the possible future evolution of bilateral relations and economic ties after the arrival to power of a new U.S. administration' – a reference to the Jan. 20 inauguration of President Barack Obama.

In a news briefing with several of her fellow legislators, Lee added that they did not touch on 'specifics' in their meetings with Castro and other officials, but said 'We talked about all the issues necessary to normalise relations between our two countries.'

On the basis of respect for sovereignty, all questions can be discussed, said Rep. Laura Richardson, also of California, who mentioned the fight against drug and human trafficking as areas in which better cooperation was possible.

Besides Lee and Richardson, the delegation was made up of Reps. Mel Watt of North Carolina, Bobby Rush of Illinois, Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri, Marcia Fudge of Ohio and Mike Honda of California.

All of the members of the delegation sit on committees that carry some weight in the lower house of Congress, where they belong to the 42-member Black Caucus, which has votes and influence, as Lee pointed out.

Former Cuban president Fidel Castro said he admires Lee, who leads the Black Caucus, for her 'fighting spirit.'

'In general, (the visiting lawmakers) believe that 68 percent of U.S. public opinion is in favour of a change in policy towards Cuba,' Fidel Castro wrote in a column on the 'touchy issue' of bilateral relations and the visit by the Democratic legislators.

Lee, Richardson and Rush also met with the former president, who stepped aside in July 2006 when he underwent intestinal surgery and has retired from public life.

Richardson said Castro talked, like Obama, about 'turning the page' in U.S.-Cuba relations.

She added that 'He looked right into my eyes and he said, 'How can we help? How can we help President Obama?''

The delegation plans to present Obama and the State Department with a report on their impressions and recommendations, ahead of the Fifth Summit of the Americas to be held Apr. 17-19 in Trinidad and Tobago.

The group of lawmakers also met with the head of the Cuban parliament, Ricardo Alarcón, Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez, and Minister of Foreign Trade and Investment, Rodrigo Malmierca, as well as the families of the five Cubans who have spent over 10 years in prison in the United States on charges of espionage and conspiracy, known as 'the Cuban five'.

They also visited the Latin American School of Medicine (ELAM), which educates young people from countries all around the world. Several young people from the United States have graduated from the Cuban medical school, and more could do so if bilateral ties were normalised, commented the legislators, who also toured the Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering Centre, a leader in Cuba’s scientific R&D.

In his column, Fidel Castro praised a proposal by Republican Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, who urged Obama to send a special envoy to start direct conversations with Cuba on certain issues.

'There is no need to emphasise what Cuba has always said: We do not fear dialogue with the United States, nor do we thrive on confrontation, as some foolish people think,' Castro wrote in the column, which was published Monday.

Dialogue 'is the only way to secure friendship and peace among peoples,' wrote the elder Castro, who is still the head of Cuba’s Communist Party.

But there are sceptics in Cuba with regard to the apparent consensus in the Cuban government that it is possible to negotiate with the Obama administration, and the growing movement in the U.S. in favour of the normalisation of ties between the two countries.

'I’ve seen similar episodes in the past that did not come to fruition. I prefer not to err on the side of over-enthusiasm,' said an analyst who preferred not to be identified.

An academic who spoke to IPS said Obama might be awaiting the outcome of the debate in Congress on measures to ease the nearly five-decade embargo against Cuba – like a loosening of travel restrictions - before engaging in eventual negotiations.

'For now, the economy is the highest priority,' he added.

The source said the start of bilateral dialogue was possible even without the prior lifting of the embargo or a solution to the case of 'the Cuban five'.

'The most logical approach, and what everyone expects, would be to start with the least sensitive issues of shared interest, in which cooperation is most likely: migration, drug trafficking interdiction, or better conditions for trade in food and medicine, for example, while leaving the most complex issues for later,' he said.