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Lawmakers Eager for Cuba Policy Changes Meet with Fidel and Raul Castro

April 8, 2009 at 6:20 PM EDT
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Several members of the Congressional Black Caucus met with Cuban President Raul Castro and former leader Fidel Castro this week to discuss proposed relaxations in travel and financial restrictions. Calif. Rep. Barbara Lee, just back from Havana, talks about the conversations.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Ray Suarez has our Cuba story. There’s talk of the Obama administration relaxing travel rules, and some in Congress want to go further.

Several members of the Congressional Black Caucus met yesterday in Havana with Fidel Castro. Ray talked earlier with one of them, Representative Barbara Lee, Democrat of California.

RAY SUAREZ: You are among a very small group of American elected officials who’ve had a chance to talk to Fidel Castro since he gave up office, since he’s been sick. Tell us about that encounter and what kind of shape you found the former leader in.

REP. BARBARA LEE (D), California: Well, I tell you, he’s had many health care challenges, but he was in very good shape. We met him at his house with his wife, Mrs. Castro. They do have five children. She greeted us at the gate.

He was standing at the front door, and we walked through the gardens and greeted them. He was standing up, and he walked back, and sat down, and we talked.

He was very engaging. His memory was as good as my memory, as your memory. He’s 82 years old.

He talked about a variety of issues. He asked a lot of questions. You know, we were there during the 41st anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We placed a wreath and had a memorial service at a memorial in Havana honoring Dr. King.

Fidel Castro on Obama

Rep. Barbara Lee
D-Calif.
[Fidel Castro] said that he believes that President Obama is very smart, he is reshaping America's image in the world, he knows what he's doing, he's intelligent, and he is hopeful.

RAY SUAREZ: What did Fidel Castro have to say about the current American administration and his desires for Cuban-American relations in the near term?

REP. BARBARA LEE: His desires -- and he is not president, and he made that very clear, that it's not up to him -- but he wants to see normal relations with Cuba.

He said that he believes that President Obama is very smart, he is reshaping America's image in the world, he knows what he's doing, he's intelligent, and he is hopeful. He understands this new era of optimism. And let me tell you: The Cuban people are very optimistic.

The Bush administration in the last eight years enacted some very harsh, very inhumane policies.

So this administration in Cuba, Mr. Raul Castro, also has that same level of optimism and hope, understanding and recognizing the realities of what our president is faced with.

But here in Congress -- and I'm very pleased to say that, you know, we're working on a variety of measures, legislation that would end the travel ban for all Americans. And so I think that, on the Cuban front, they're watching, they're waiting, and they're hopeful.

RAY SUAREZ: Did Fidel Castro say he wanted to help the Obama administration?

REP. BARBARA LEE: He wants to make sure that Cuba does whatever it needs to do to ensure that dialogue and discussion takes place that could lead to normal relations. And that means, of course, normal relations, discussions without preconditions.

And I believe that the Cubans want to make sure they do everything that's necessary, short of giving up their national sovereignty. I mean, we would not do that, in an era of mutual respect and national sovereignty, to engage in the type of dialogue that could be productive.

And so I know they want to do that and help move that forward. President Raul Castro said that, as well as the ministers and others.

Lee focuses on economic benefits

Rep. Barbara Lee
D-Calif.
We have to really understand that the economic benefits, especially in an economic downturn in our own country, Cuba offers a very new market and a new way to make money for American businesses and to create jobs in our own country.

RAY SUAREZ: Did you get into any technical conversations about how things could be different? What was your brief, you and the delegation, as you spoke with the head of state of another country?

REP. BARBARA LEE: We talked about trade and the markets and how Cuba would be an entirely new market for American goods and services and products.

It's much better -- and they want to trade with America. It's closer. The prices are better, the quality. So they want to buy American. Why in the world are we keeping our business from profiting from the Cuban market? It just doesn't make sense.

Europe is there. All Latin American countries are there. It's wrong, I think. And we have to really understand that the economic benefits, especially in an economic downturn in our own country, Cuba offers a very new market and a new way to make money for American businesses and to create jobs in our own country. So we talked somewhat at length about that.

RAY SUAREZ: There are Cubans standing up to tremendous pressure, tremendous curtailing of their freedom, to oppose the regime, to ask for the Castros to move from the stage. Did you talk to any of those Cubans?

REP. BARBARA LEE: I have talked to the dissident community on many occasions. As I said, I have visited Cuba since 1977.

RAY SUAREZ: But not on this trip?

REP. BARBARA LEE: The purpose of this trip was to talk to government officials primarily, to talk about what we need to do, what we need to communicate to begin the framework and establish a dialogue between our two countries.

Travel ban can be lifted fast

Rep. Barbara Lee
D-Calif.
I believe that it has to be done in a way that everyone agrees that this needs to be done. I think it could be done today, myself. I think we could lift the travel ban today.

RAY SUAREZ: You've said several times that you feel the wind is blowing in your direction, that there's a lot of support for reopening the relationship, lifting the travel ban. Do you think this can be done quickly?

REP. BARBARA LEE: I know it can be done quickly. The question is, is the political will there to do it quickly? And I'm not certain yet.

I believe that it has to be done in a way that everyone agrees that this needs to be done. I think it could be done today, myself. I think we could lift the travel ban today.

Where there's a will, there's a way. And that's how many of us, especially in the Congressional Black Caucus, have always lived our life. When we believe that there's something right to do and remembering that members of the Congressional Black Caucus and the CBC as a body have been known as the conscience in the Congress, when we believe that there's something we need to do that is right and that's just, we always have to have that hope that that can happen.

And in this instance, I'm hopeful, but I also understand the practical realities of how difficult it could be, but we're going to try to make it a lot easier.

RAY SUAREZ: Congresswoman Lee, thanks for talking to us today.

REP. BARBARA LEE: Thank you very much.