Signaling its willingness to discuss improved relations with the United States under the Obama administration, Havana welcomed a contingent from the Congressional Black Caucus. On the agenda? The relationship between the two countries, but also an audience with Fidel Castro. Three members of the Congressional Black Caucus were the first American officials to meet with Fidel Castro since he fell ill in 2006. Representative Barbara Lee (D-Cal), Chair of the Congressional Black Conference, joins The Takeaway to report on the state of the relationship between Cuba and the U.S. and the state of health of Fidel Castro.
Femi Oke: I want to take you to Cuba. Now on Tuesday, Cuba granted three visiting members of the Congressional Black Caucus the first meeting with Fidel Castro by American officials since he fell ill back in 2006. So Congresswoman Barbara Lee, she’s a Democrat from California and chair of the Congressional Black Caucus was among those who traveled to Havana and saw Fidel. She’s just back from Cuba, she joins us now. Congresswoman Barbara Lee good morning, how exciting was that, to be visiting Fidel Castro.
Rep. Barbara Lee: It was a very good meeting, we were very pleased to see he’s doing well. He is very energetic and enthusiastic, clear thinking, knew what the delegation’s purpose was in Havana. And in fact we talked a lot about many different subjects, the bottom line — he also believes that it’s time to normalize relations between the U.S. and Cuba.
Femi Oke: Were there any specific things he said to you that really stay in your mind from that experience of meeting him?
Rep. Barbara Lee: He asked a lot of questions, about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for example, he is a student of Dr. King’s but wanted to know more books and more information about Dr. King and his life. But the conversation was general and we talked about issues of foreign policy and basically the new world in which we live, and why the Cuban people believe that normalization of relations is in the best interest of the American people and the Cuban people.
Femi Oke: Now probably your most important meeting must’ve been with the current President Raul Castro. What did you get out of that meeting?
Rep. Barbara Lee: Well we met with President Raul Castro for about four hours the night before. And again we wanted to get a sense of what was required from their point of view to move forward in dialogue with the United States. We learned from President Raul Castro that they do want dialogue and discussion based on mutual respect and sovereignty, and that all issues that the United States and Cuba are concerned with would be on the table for discussion. And I think that’s an important message that we are communicating back to our President because our President is certainly doing a wonderful job in reshaping America’s role and image in the world. And we believe that he needs to look at our recommendations prior to the Summit of the Americas, April 17th, so that he will get a sense of what our views are on this as he meets with Latin American countries. All 15 Latin American countries have diplomatic relations with Cuba. It’s unfortunate that the United States is isolated in our policy. And 68 percent of the American people want relations, normal relations with Cuba — the right to travel to Cuba. And furthermore the economic interests of our own business community are at stake. When you look at the new markets that are provided to American businesses, if we allow trade with Cuba, when you look at the fact that we’re in an economic downturn, and there are many, many opportunities for our farmers, for our workers here to work on projects in Cuba … they had a devastating hurricane, so it’s in our national interest to normalize relations.
Femi Oke: Did you feel that Cuba was ready to have that conversation and they’ve been ready for some time, or do you think it’s the way President Obama is actually talking to the rest of the world, including Cuba, that you seem to have made some kind of breakthrough with the delegation.
Rep. Barbara Lee: I have visited Cuba since the mid ’70s and my sense always after conversations and traveling there many times was that the Cuban people and the Cuban government wanted normal relations with Cuba. Now I believe the world, including Cubans, are very optimistic about this new direction in our foreign policy. President Obama has said he wants to turn the page, he said that on his recent, very successful visit abroad. And so quite naturally a country 90 miles away is very enthusiastic about the possibilities. It’s not going to be easy though, and they understand the political dynamics that are operating, and they understand though that there could be executive orders issued by the president that could begin to unravel.
John Hockenberry: But Congresswoman, I mean I understand the incentives from Cuba’s perspective, but how do you answer the charge you’re just making Raul Castro look good by going down there and talking with him and having a folksy meeting with Fidel?
Rep. Barbara Lee: It’s not a matter of making anyone look good. This is a matter of representing the viewpoints of 68 percent of the American people, and having discussions with regard to how Americans, or what conditions would be required to allow for the travel of American citizens to Cuba, and to allow our businesses to engage in business activities. We care about our own country’s role in the world and when you look at the fact that we are very isolated, then I say and members of our delegation say, it’s time to talk to Cuba.
Femi Oke: Congressman Barbara Lee, thank you very much for joining us this morning. Congressman Barbara Lee is a Democrat from California and Chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus.
WNYC 93.9 FM and AM 820 are New York's flagship public radio
stations, broadcasting the finest programs from NPR, PRI and American Public Media, as well as a wide range of award-winning local
programming. WNYC is a division of
New York Public Radio.