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Congressional Delegation Heads To Cuba

Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) talking to Morley Safer for a 60 Minutes segment to air 11/05/06. Flake is a fierce opponent of congressional earmarks.
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Ten American lawmakers were traveling to communist Cuba Friday following leadership shifts on the island and in the U.S. Congress that open new possibilities for change in U.S. policies.

Described as the largest congressional delegation to visit the island since the 1959 Cuban revolution, the group was led by U.S. Representatives Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican, and William Delahunt, a Massachusetts Democrat. Flake and Delahunt requested a recent study reviewing U.S. spending on efforts to hasten change in Cuba, and both advocate an end to the decades-old U.S. trade and travel sanctions against the island.

Although the Americans reportedly had requested to see Defense Minister Raul Castro, who is leading Cuba following his brother Fidel's intestinal surgery, there was no immediate word whether such a meeting would take place. The group is scheduled to leave Cuba Sunday afternoon.

The trip comes amid growing uncertainty about the health of 80-year-old Fidel Castro, the island's longtime leader, who has not been seen in public since late July, when he underwent surgery and temporarily ceded his powers to his 75-year-old brother Raul.

Raul Castro has publicly issued two offers to discuss on equal terms the U.S. government's differences with Cuba. But the administration of U.S. President Bush has said there will be no dialogue until Cuba holds free and competitive elections and releases the roughly 300 political prisoners rights groups say are held in Cuban prisons. In recent years, the Bush administration has intensified the embargo and other policies aimed at squeezing the island's economy and undermining Cuba's communist leaders.

The Bush administration in the fall announced it would set aside an additional $80 million to promote a transition to a U.S.-style democracy in Cuba.

Communist officials resent the funding, which largely goes to dissident support operations in Florida and Washington, groups they consider to be "mercenary" and "counterrevolutionary." They insist there will be no transition on the island after Fidel Castro is gone, but rather a continuation of the current economic and political systems with a collective leadership in charge.

On the eve of the congressional visit, the Communist Party newspaper Granma published a lengthy editorial lambasting U.S. funding of Cuban opposition groups.

That editorial addressed the congressional investigation requested by Flake and Delahunt, which concluded that the U.S. Agency for International Development failed to consistently oversee spending on Cuban groups, which spent the money on such things as cashmere sweaters and chocolate, and that coordination with the State Department was ineffective at times.

The party newspaper also criticized the American diplomatic mission in Havana for distributing books, medicine, clothes and shortwave radios to Cubans, saying the congressional report confirms that the U.S. Interests Section "acts like the central barracks of the counterrevolution."

The lawmakers will meet with Michael Parmly, the head of the American mission, on Sunday. Friday's agenda includes meetings with the head of Cuba's food import company Alimport; U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, a Missouri Democrat, is looking to expand American food exports to Cuba.

They also plan to meet National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcon, Roman Catholic Cardinal Jaime Ortega, Canadian and European diplomats and the head of Cuba's basic industries ministry.