U.S. Lawmakers Meet with Fidel Castro

April 7, 2009 07:00 PM

via a special arrangement with Informa Economics, Inc.

Former Cuban president asks, 'How can we help President Obama?'

NOTE: This column is copyrighted material, therefore reproduction or retransmission is prohibited under U.S. copyright laws.

Three members of the 42-member U.S. Congressional Black Caucus attended the first known meeting between former President Fidel Castro, 82, and U.S. officials since he became ill in July 2006.

In a letter published Tuesday in the online version of Granma, a state-run Cuban newspaper, Fidel Castro wrote that an unnamed caucus member told him "he was sure that Obama would change Cuba policy but that Cuba should also help him."

According to one member of the delegation, Rep. Laura Richardson (D-Calif.), Castro “looked right into my eyes and he said, 'How can we help? How can we help President Obama?'"

Pressing for a 'new direction' in U.S. policy toward Cuba. The head of the caucus, Democratic Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), was one of the three visiting legislators who held talks with the former Cuban leader Tuesday at the end of a five-day trip to Cuba. They were part of a larger delegation. Later in Washington, Lee said the long-standing U.S. embargo against Cuba has not worked, and that it is time to look at a new direction in U.S. policy toward the island. Other members of the caucus echoed those sentiments.

Lee has co-sponsored a bill that would lift long-standing restrictions on U.S. citizens' travel to Cuba. Identical legislation has been introduced in the U.S. Senate.

White House officials have indicated that President Barack Obama soon will move to ease some travel and financial restrictions against Cuba, perhaps before next week's Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago. President Obama has said he would be willing to speak with Cuba's leaders, but would maintain a long-standing economic embargo as leverage to push for democratic change on the island.

White House comments. Jeffrey Davidow, the White House adviser for the upcoming Summit of the Americas, which Obama will attend, said policy changes are intended as a way to move relations between the two nations forward. "We can expect some relaxation, some changes in terms of the restrictions on family remittances and family travel," adding that, "Cuban-Americans are the best possible ambassadors of our system and our values."

Davidow and other administration officials said President Obama is also considering allowing all Americans to travel to Cuba, appointing a special envoy to oversee policy toward the island and even possibly ending U.S. opposition to Cuba's membership in the Organization of American States (OAS). "We are engaged in a continual evaluation of our policy and how that policy could help result in a change in Cuba that could bring about a democratic society," Davidow added.

The Summit of the Americas is being held April 17-19 in Trinidad and Tobago, and Davidow said he "would not be surprised" if the policy changes came before the event.


President John Kennedy imposed an economic and trade embargo on Cuba on Feb. 7, 1962, after Fidel Castro's gov't expropriated US property on the island. Elements of the embargo have been toughened and relaxed under succeeding US presidents. Exceptions have been made for food and medicine exports. George W. Bush added restrictions on travel and remittances and mandated imports be paid in cash in advance. The sanctions regime currently include:

-- No Cuban products or raw materials may enter the US.
-- US companies and foreign subsidiaries are banned from trade with Cuba.
-- Cuba must pay cash up front when importing US food.
-- Ships which dock in Cuba may not dock in the US for six months.
-- US citizens are banned from spending money or receiving gifts in Cuba without special permission, in effect a travel ban.
-- Americans with family on the island are limited to one visit every three years.

Once, the old Soviet empire propped up Cuba. Now that job has fallen to Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, who sells Cuba about 100,000 barrels of deeply discounted oil a day. Commerce between the two countries amounts to $7 billion a year. China also has become a major trading partner.

A report by the Brookings Institution notes that Cuba has an estimated 4.6 billion barrels of offshore oil reserves. Its sugar fields have the potential to produce vast quantities of ethanol. When these resources are developed, the Brookings report states, they could bring up to $5 billion a year to the island.

Comments: Fidel Castro has thrown the end-the-embargo ball back to the Obama administration in asking what it would take to help Obama. So in the coming days and weeks, Obama administration officials will likely detail what those requirements are to really end the failed embargo policy toward the island just 90 miles off the U.S. coast.

NOTE: This column is copyrighted material, therefore reproduction or retransmission is prohibited under U.S. copyright laws.


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