HAVANA - Three members of a U.S. congressional delegation met on Tuesday with former Cuban leader Fidel Castro in his first known talks with U.S. officials since he underwent surgery in July 2006.
The meeting took place at a time of possible change in long hostile U.S.-Cuba relations, spurred by President Barack Obama's promises to take steps toward normalizing ties with the Communist-ruled island, 90 miles from Florida.
The U.S. Interests Section in Havana said three members of the six-member visiting U.S. delegation met Fidel Castro, shortly before the group left for Washington at the end of a trip in which they also met with President Raul Castro.
U.S. Representative Barbara Lee, leader of the congressional delegation, headed the group that met Fidel Castro, an Interests Section spokesman said.
After the lengthy meeting on Monday night with Raul Castro, who took over from his ailing elder brother last year, the members of the U.S. Congress delegation said they were convinced the Cuban president wanted to end 50 years of hostility between the two countries.
Lee said on Tuesday the six Democrats would return to Washington after their five-day trip with a simple message: It's time to talk to Cuba. The moment is now.
But moving forward in U.S.-Cuban relations may still 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 U.S. Congress delegates said they avoided specifics with Raul Castro, but were struck by his humor, impressed by his involvement in Third World causes and firm in their belief that he wants to end U.S.-Cuba enmity.
All of us are convinced that President Castro would like normal relations and would see normalization, ending the embargo, as beneficial to both countries, Lee told reporters.
The United States has maintained a trade embargo against Cuba since 1962. Washington's policy of isolating Havana began soon after Fidel Castro, who is now 82, took power in 1959.
It was a very good meeting. It was very open and we discussed a wide range of issues, said Lee, who chairs the Congressional Black Caucus.
The meeting with Raul Castro was 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 long-standing 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 with the United States and praised U.S. Senator Richard Lugar for recently 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.
News reports have said Obama will shortly lift restrictions on family travel and remittances between Cuba and the United States, perhaps before the summit. Congress is considering bills 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.