Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega Alamino called a mid-December visit to his nation by 10 U.S. legislators “very interesting.”
“It seems to me that they have a favorable attitude, and at this time of year, when Christmas is near and we are so in need of peace and dialogue among human beings, I consider this mission interesting, very interesting,” said Cardinal Ortega, archbishop of Havana.
The cardinal met Dec. 16 with the U.S. congressional delegation of six Democrats and four Republicans.
“It was very pleasant. The legislators were pleased with our conversation, and I was pleased with them,” he told Catholic News Service Dec. 17. “They want an improvement in the U.S. government’s relations with Cuba, and they have addressed various issues with Cuban officials.”
Asked about current prospects for bilateral relations between Cuba and the United States, the prelate replied that “everything depends on attitudes there in the United States.”
During the visit to Cuba, which ended Dec. 17, the U.S. delegation met with Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque; Ricardo Alarcon, president of the national assembly; and Central Bank President Francisco Soberon. The group also met with Yadira Garcia, minister of basic industry; Fernando Remirez de Estenoz, head of international relations for the Communist Party of Cuba; representatives of Alimport, the food importing company; and Western diplomats.
At a press conference at the end of their three-day visit to Havana, the legislators said that dialogue between the United States and Cuba has begun, although Cuban officials have not acknowledged that “a new era” has begun.
The visit came in the wake of conciliatory comments made Dec. 2 by Raul Castro, ailing President Fidel Castro’s brother who is acting as president. Raul Castro said the two countries should settle their differences at a negotiating table.
Fidel Castro, leader of the Cuban revolution, is recovering from intestinal surgery. On July 31 he temporarily turned his political duties over to his brother, who is second in command in the government. The U.S. lawmakers did not meet with Raul Castro, although they had requested an appointment.
“Officials of the (Cuban) government told us that (Fidel Castro) does not have cancer and that his condition is not terminal,” Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who headed the delegation, told the press conference.
In a joint statement, the legislators said it is “time for the United States to enter a dialogue with Cuba.”
“No one should be under the illusion that a negotiation with Cuba would be easy, or that results would be guaranteed. But if we refuse to engage in normal diplomacy, we are guaranteed to produce no results at all,” the statement said.
The U.S. legislators called for regular consultation on issues such as migration and drug trafficking, discussion of the environmental impact that Cuban petroleum exploration could have on U.S. marine ecosystems, and conversations about ways of collaborating on legal issues.
Rep. Bill Delahunt, D-Mass., said the fact that Raul Castro used the word “negotiation” indicates a willingness to take steps toward change. Delahunt said he doubted there would be sudden changes in the country, but he said he was confident that there was a willingness on both sides of the Florida Straits to take advantage of what he called “a historic moment.”
“What we have been doing for 45 years did not work,” said Rep. Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y. “It has not led to a prisoner exchange. It has not done anything. It has not brought about changes in Cuba ... so we need to do something different, and that different thing would be to sit down and talk. We can’t be sure that will work, but we know that what has been done did not work.”
Meeks added that the legislative visit was not related to Fidel or Raul Castro, but to foreign policy toward Cuba, which Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., called “a relic of the Cold War.”
The lawmakers said the change in the balance of power in the U.S. Congress could serve as a catalyst for future dialogue between the United State and Cuba.
The two countries broke off diplomatic relations in 1961, two years after the Cuban revolution. The only official relationship is through the interest sections that were established in Washington and Havana in 1977.