HAVANA (AP) — A “very healthy, very energetic” Fidel Castro asked visiting Congressional Black Caucus members what Cuba could do to help President Barack Obama improve bilateral relations during his first meeting with U.S. officials since falling ill in 2006.

Caucus leader Rep. Barbara Lee, a Democrat from California, said the ailing former Cuban president talked for nearly two hours with her and two other delegation members on Tuesday in a meeting seen as signaling Cuba’s willingness to discuss better relations with the United States.

“We believe it is time to open dialogue and discussion with Cuba,” 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.”

But on Thursday, two Republican congressmen ripped Congressional Black Caucus members for ignoring Cuba’s “myriad gross human rights abuses,’’ according to news reports. The Republican lawmakers said this week’s caucus trip to the island nation ignored the plight of political prisoners under the Castro regime.

U.S. Reps. Chris Smith, R-New Jersey, and Frank Wolf, R-Virginia, also urged the Obama administration not to ease trade embargo or travel restrictions until the Cuban government releases all “prisoners of conscience,” shows greater respect for freedom of religion and speech, and holds “free and fair” elections, according to CNN.

The statements from Smith and Wolf came three days after the administration signaled that new rules on family travel and remittances to Cuba may be announced before President Obama goes to the Summit of the Americas on April 17.

Lee, however, said on Thursday that it made no sense to continue what she characterized as a failed policy.

“Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but by any objective standard our current policy toward Cuba just hasn’t worked.
Simply put, it’s time to open dialogue and discussion with Cuba,” she said in a statement.

Lázaro Miranda and Félix Cifuentes, two Afro-Cubans who said they had been imprisoned by the regime, also criticized the Democratic lawmakers, according to The Miami Herald.

“They didn’t get the real picture because they were not looking for the real picture,” said Cifuentes, who spent nine years in Cuban prisons, according to The Herald.  “What that delegation saw was out of Fidel’s eyes.”

Lee said the group would present its findings to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a fellow Democrat from California, and White House and State Department officials.

California Democratic Rep. Laura Richardson, who also met Fidel with Illinois Democratic Rep. Bobby Rush, said Castro “looked directly into our eyes” and asked how Cuba could help Obama in his efforts to change the course of U.S. foreign policy.

Richardson said she had the impression that 82-year-old Fidel wants to see changes in U.S.-Cuba relations in his lifetime.

Lee said she found Castro “very healthy, very energetic, very clear thinking.”

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 U.S. 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.  Obama has ordered an assessment of U.S. policy toward the communist nation and some members of Congress are pushing to lift a ban on Americans visiting the island.

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.

In a column posted on a government Web site late Tuesday night, Castro wrote about his meeting with the three U.S. representatives, saying Cuban leaders “weren’t aggressors, nor did we threaten the United States.”

“Cuba did not have any alternative but to take the initiative,” he said in explaining why he sought the lawmakers’ advice on what his country could do to help Obama improve bilateral relations.

He did not spell out exactly what they recommended, but applauded “the interest and depth with which they expounded on their points of view and the quality of their simple and profound words.”

“The three reflected transparency, pride in their work, their organization and the fight for their country,” Castro wrote.  “It’s evident that they know Obama and have confidence and security in, and sympathy for him.”

Among the last U.S. officials to see him face-to-face were state governors visiting the island separately on farm trade missions in 2005: Dave Heineman of Nebraska and Kathleen Blanco of Louisiana.

Lee’s group was in Cuba five days on a trip meant to encourage dialogue between the United States and Cuba.

Jeffrey Davidow, the White House adviser for this month’s Summit of the Americas, which Obama will attend, says the U.S. president has no plans to lift the 47-year-old trade embargo against Cuba.  But he says Obama will soon ease travel and financial restrictions affecting the island as his administration reviews its Cuban policy.

Lee’s delegation is sympathetic to Cuba, with most of its members openly praising the country’s communist government while decrying U.S. policy.

Before the meeting with Fidel Castro was revealed, Lee said her group’s talks with Raul Castro left lawmakers “convinced that President Castro sees normalization of relations and an end to the embargo as a benefit to both countries.”

Associated Press Writer Jim Abrams in Washington contributed to this report.

AP Photo/Granma,Juvenal Balan Neyra. Cuba’s President Raul Castro, right, meets with Rep. Barbara Lee, a California Democrat, second right, and other members of an American delegation in Havana on Monday, April 6. Castro met with six visiting members of the Congressional Black Caucus, his first face-to-face discussions with U.S. leaders since he became Cuba’s president last year.