US lawmakers arrive in Cuba to discuss greater co-operation

First delegation to visit island since Obama announced he was restoring diplomatic ties

A delegation of American legislators led by senator Patrick Leahy arrived in Cuba on Saturday to discuss greater cooperation and remaining areas of disagreement.

It is the first congressional delegation to visit the island nation since president Barack Obama announced last month that he was restoring full diplomatic ties with it.

“We are going this time to discuss our expectations, and the Cubans’ expectations, for the normalization of relations,” Leahy said in a statement.

"We want to explore opportunities for greater cooperation, and to encourage Cuban officials to address issues of real concern to the American people and to their representatives in Congress. "


Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York, who has recently shown an interest in foreign travel as a way to drum up business at home, is also planning a trip to Cuba, his office said Saturday.

Accompanying Mr Leahy on his three-day trip are other Democratic members of Congress: Senators Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, and Reps. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland and Peter Welch of Vermont.

In the statement, Mr Leahy’s office said the trip was intended to “seek clarity from Cubans on what they envision normalisation to look like, going beyond past rote responses such as ‘end the embargo.’”

The office said the trip would "help develop a sense of what Cuba and the United States are prepared to do to make a constructive relationship possible."

The delegation is scheduled to meet with Cuban government officials, Cardinal Jaime Lucas Ortega y Alamino and ambassadors to Cuba from Mexico, Spain, Norway and Colombia.

The statement said the delegation might meet with “representatives of Cuba’s civil society,” a term referring to those working for reform within the communist political system.

It is the second trip to Cuba for Mr Leahy in a month. In December, he traveled there with two congressmen around the time Mr Obama made the surprise announcement about restoring diplomatic relations.

On that trip, Mr Leahy picked up Alan Gross, a former government contractor from Maryland who had been imprisoned there for five years.

Gross was released as part of the agreement between the United States and Cuba that ended a half-century in which the countries had no formal ties.

Melissa DeRosa, a spokeswoman for Mr Cuomo, said he planned to lead a trade mission to Cuba. “This is one of several such trips promoting New York that he plans to take in the coming term,” she said.

The governor is expected to announce the mission formally on Wednesday in his State of the State address, according to The Wall Street Journal, which first reported the trip.

Cuomo gained a reputation in his first term as a homebody, rarely traveling abroad. But during his campaign for a second term he took a short trip to Israel to show support for the country amid conflict in the Gaza Strip.

Then he traveled to Afghanistan, saying he hoped to learn about terrorism from the visit.

He has recently said he is considering trade missions to Canada, China, Italy and Mexico in the coming years.