U.S. lawmakers say normalize Cuba relations, then talk

HAVANA Sun Apr 5, 2009 2:12pm EDT

U.S. Congresswoman Barbara Lee (L) talks next to Cuban Protestant church leader Reverend Raul Suarez (C) and U.S. Congressman Bobby Rush (R) during a visit at the Martin Luther King Memorial in Havana April 4, 2009. REUTERS/Stringer

U.S. Congresswoman Barbara Lee (L) talks next to Cuban Protestant church leader Reverend Raul Suarez (C) and U.S. Congressman Bobby Rush (R) during a visit at the Martin Luther King Memorial in Havana April 4, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Stringer

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HAVANA (Reuters) - The United States and Cuba should normalize diplomatic relations then sort out their differences, the head of a delegation of U.S. lawmakers on a visit to Cuba said on Sunday.

"Most of the members of our delegation believe we need to actually normalize relations and then the details of what that means would follow," Representative Barbara Lee, who is also chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said at a news conference.

The seven member delegation of Democrats, made up mostly of African-American lawmakers, met with Parliament President Ricardo Alarcon and Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez in what Lee said was an effort to improve relations between Washington and the communist-ruled island.

They also toured various Cuban facilities, including a genetic engineering and pharmaceutical complex, and planned to visit churches on Sunday.

The United States is the only country in the hemisphere, other than El Salvador, that does not have normal diplomatic and economic relations with Cuba.

El Salvadoran President-elect Mauricio Funes has announced he will establish both when he takes office in June.

U.S. President Barack Obama has ordered a review of Cuba policy, but stated the decades-old embargo should remain to pressure Havana toward democratic change.

While Obama could ease diplomatic relations with Cuba, lifting the embargo would need congressional approval.

The U.S. congressional delegation is the first to visit Cuba since Obama took office in January.

They hope to meet with President Raul Castro, aiming to get a better grasp of issues that should be discussed between the two countries, before returning home on Wednesday, Lee said.

"We talked in broad terms, more about principles than about details, and what would make sense between two sovereign nations and how we would want to see those conversations proceed," Lee said of their meeting on Saturday with Foreign Minister Rodriguez.

The U.S. Congress is preparing to consider bills lifting most restrictions on U.S. travel to Cuba.

On Friday, a White House official confirmed a Wall Street Journal report that Obama would abolish limits on family travel and cash remittances between the United States and Cuba, but the official said the move was not a policy shift or imminent.

Obama is to meet with Latin American leaders later this month in Trinidad and Tobago. His tone on Cuba, different from the tough policies under former President George W. Bush, has sparked hopes for change on both sides of the Florida Straits and in Latin America.

(Editing by Vicki Allen)

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