cuba

Yesterday, key members of the Congressional Black Caucus returned from a four-day trip to Cuba, during which they met with both current President Raul Castro and his brother, longtime American nemesis Fidel Castro. Designed to gather input from Cuban ministers and officials and send a message of Obama-era outreach from the United States, the trip underscored the gradual shift in American public opinion regarding the 47-year embargo on travel and trade with Cuba.

While the trip may have been a mini-vacation for the members, they were all business at a press conference on Capitol Hill after landing in Washington. “In the past 50 years, the US has been swimming in the Caribbean sea of delusion,” said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-MO). The embargo “just hasn’t worked,” added Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA), chairwoman of the CBC. “It’s time to turn the page” on a “cold war mentality” and normalize diplomatic relations, she said.

That may happen sooner than expected. Now, even Republican lawmakers like Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN) are reporting that "we must recognize the ineffectiveness of our current policy and deal with the Cuban regime in a way that enhances U.S. interests." Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has pledged to review Cuba policy, and feedback from the CBC delegation—especially in advance of the Summit of the Americas next week—could be crucial in moving a real change in policy to the floor of Congress.

The members, all wearing USA / Cuba flag pins, each expressed the need for opening relations with the island nation just 90 miles south of the US, and had effusive praise for both Raul and Fidel Castro, with whom they met for several hours on Monday. It was Raul Castro's first face-to-face discussion with U.S. officials since becoming Cuba’s president last year. Lee, who has traveled to Cuba several times in the past, described the elder Castro—despite reports of poor health—as “engaged, energetic…specific, very clear, very talkative.” Rep. Laura Richardson (D-CA) said at one point, the still-sharp Fidel leaned in and asked: “How can we as Cubans help President Obama?”

The ailing former president had apparently watched the US election closely from Havana and been moved by the change Obama represented in American society and politics. Castro, added Rep. Bobby Rush (D-IL) also asked about Martin Luther King, Jr (the trip was over the weekend marking the 41st anniversary of his assassination in Memphis). The CBC promised to send him books in Spanish about the civil rights icon.

—DAYO OLOPADE

UPDATE: Steven Clemons has more on Cuba at The Washington Note. The provocative question:

[I]f Barack Obama is the change agent he said, is Cuba more than Cuba? Is it a place where the steps you take there are so symbolic that they can have echo effects geostrategically on other parts of the world?"

Covers the White House and Washington for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.