HAVANA — Signaling its willingness to discuss improved relations with the U.S., Cuba on Tuesday granted three visiting members of the Congressional Black Caucus the first meeting with Fidel Castro by American officials since he fell ill in 2006.
Caucus leader Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., said she found Castro "very healthy, very energetic, very clear thinking" during his nearly two-hour session with the lawmakers. She said caucus members also visited his home and met his wife.
The surprise encounter came a day after the full delegation of six representatives spent more than four hours talking privately with Cuban President Raul Castro, his first encounter with U.S. officials since formally replacing his brother as head of state nearly 14 months ago.
And it comes as Washington discusses whether to warm up long-chilly relations with Cuba. President Barack Obama has ordered an assessment of U.S. policy toward the communist nation and some members of Congress are pushing to lift a ban on Americans visiting the island.
"We believe it is time to open dialogue and discussion with Cuba," Lee told a news conference in Washington upon the caucus members' return. "Cubans do want dialogue. They do want talks. They do want normal relations."
Lee said the group would present its findings to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D.-Calif., and White House and State Department officials.
Rep. Laura Richardson, D-Calif., who also met Fidel with Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., said Castro "looked directly into our eyes" and asked how Cuba could help Obama in his efforts to change the course of U.S. foreign policy. Richardson said she had the impression that 82-year-old Fidel wants to see changes in U.S.-Cuba relations in his lifetime.
Fidel Castro has not been seen in public since undergoing emergency intestinal surgery in July 2006 and it was his first meeting in several years with American officials. Although he gave up his presidential duties after becoming ill, he remains an influential force in Cuba.
Among the last U.S. officials to see him face-to-face were state governors visiting the island separately on farm trade missions in 2005: Dave Heineman of Nebraska and Kathleen Blanco of Louisiana.
Lee's group was in Cuba five days on a trip meant to encourage dialogue between the United States and Cuba.
Jeffrey Davidow, the White House adviser for this month's Summit of the Americas, which Obama will attend, says the U.S. president has no plans to lift the 47-year-old trade embargo against Cuba. But he says Obama will soon ease travel and financial restrictions affecting the island as his administration reviews its Cuban policy.
Lee's delegation is sympathetic to Cuba, with most of its members openly praising the country's communist government while decrying U.S. policy.
Before the meeting with Fidel Castro was revealed, Lee said her group's talks with Raul Castro left lawmakers "convinced that President Castro sees normalization of relations and an end to the embargo as a benefit to both countries."
Raul Castro "said everything was on the table," Lee added.
In commentaries Monday in state news media, Fidel Castro said that Cuba is not afraid to talk directly to the United States and that the Cuban government does not thrive on confrontation as its detractors have long claimed. He also welcomed the visit by the U.S. lawmakers.
Opponents of the Castro government have long argued that while Cuban officials publicly call for an end to the trade embargo, they strive to antagonize Washington so it will keep the sanctions in place. The critics say Cuban leaders want to be able to blame the country's problems — from restricted public Internet access to chronic food shortages — on trade sanctions.
A member of the visiting U.S. delegation, Rush of Illinois, said he found the 77-year-old Raul Castro "to be just the opposite of what is being portrayed in the media."
"I think that what really surprised me, but also endeared me to him, was his keen sense of humor, his sense of history and his basic human qualities," Rush said, adding that they talked about the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and promised to send Fidel a book on the late civil rights leader.
"They want to have the kind of relationship they had prior to the blockade. They deserve that," Rush said of the Castros.
The American lawmakers were "in conversation with him as though we were old family members," said Rush, who was once a Black Panther.
"I intend to do everything that I can when we get back to the States to make sure that normalization with our relationship with Cuba is given proper consideration both within the House of Representatives and the neighborhoods of America," Rush added.
Bills in both houses of the U.S. Congress would effectively bar any president from prohibiting Americans from traveling to Cuba except in extreme cases such as war.
Lee predicted the measures will be approved, but said that will not spell the end of the trade embargo.
"This would be a wonderful step, allowing American citizens the right to travel to Cuba, but much would follow after that," she said in an interview.
The lawmakers' meeting with Raul Castro touched on few specific issues, especially thorny ones like Cuba's checkered human rights record.
"We did not come to negotiate, we came to associate and cultivate," said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri.
Lee said the legislators would use their visit to prepare a report for Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on the situation in Cuba.
"Our basic message back to our country would be, it's time to talk to Cuba," Lee said. "The time is now."
Asked about the lawmakers' trip, before the session with Fidel Castro was reported, State Department spokesman Robert Wood said members of Congress are free to go where they want and to discuss issues with world leaders.
"And I'm sure that the members of that delegation will be raising some of the concerns that the U.S. government has with Cuba in terms of allowing Cubans to have the same rights and freedoms as (citizens of) other countries in the hemisphere," Wood said.
Associated Press Writer Jim Abrams in Washington contributed to this report.