Signalling its willingness to discuss improved relations with the US, Cuba granted three visiting members of the Congressional Black Caucus the first meeting with Fidel Castro by American officials since he fell ill in 2006.
Caucus leader Representative Barbara Lee said she found Mr Castro “very healthy, very energetic, very clear thinking” during his nearly two-hour session with the politicians. She said caucus members also visited his home and met his wife.
The surprise encounter came a day after the full delegation of six representatives spent more than four hours talking privately with Cuban President Raul Castro, his first encounter with US officials since formally replacing his brother as head of state nearly 14 months ago.
And it comes as Washington discusses whether to warm up long-chilly relations with Cuba.
President Barack Obama has ordered an assessment of US policy toward the communist nation and some members of Congress are pushing to lift a ban on Americans visiting the island.
“We believe it is time to open dialogue and discussion with Cuba,” Ms Lee told a news conference in Washington upon the caucus members’ return. “Cubans do want dialogue. They do want talks. They do want normal relations.”
Ms Lee said the group would present its findings to Speaker Nancy Pelosi and White House and State Department officials.
Representative Laura Richardson who also met Fidel with Representative Bobby Rush said Fidel Castro “looked directly into our eyes” and asked how Cuba could help Mr Obama in his efforts to change the course of US foreign policy.
Ms Richardson said she had the impression that 82-year-old Fidel wants to see changes in US-Cuba relations in his lifetime.
Fidel Castro has not been seen in public since undergoing emergency intestinal surgery in July 2006 and it was his first meeting in several years with American officials. Although he gave up his presidential duties after becoming ill, he remains an influential force in Cuba.