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William Delahunt

By Karen Jeffrei

U.S. Rep. William Delahunt will be among a group of 10 Republican and Democratic congressmen traveling to Cuba tomorrow in what they hope will become the first step in normalizing relations.

'It's time to engage in discussion about issues that separate Cuba and the U.S.,'' said Delahunt, D-Mass., a strong critic of the Bush administration's policies toward the island nation.

Delahunt said the 10-member delegation is expected to return Sunday after meeting with Cuba's legislative and economic leaders. It will be the largest contingent of U.S. officials to visit Cuba in recent memory.

All are members of the Cuba Working Group, a 20-member bipartisan study group that opposes some U.S. sanctions against Cuba. Members of the group have previously described U.S. policy toward Cuba as a failure for more than four decades.

Normalizing relations with Cuba ''presents multiple opportunities for us. There are an abundance of economic opportunities for Americans in Cuba, including for businesspeople and farmers, Delahunt said.

Some large Midwestern agricultural concerns already do business in Cuba, earning an estimated $1 billion a year, he said.

But at the same time there are ''administrative barriers and roadblocks,'' that prevent other American businesspeople from tapping a market in Cuba, he said.

Lifting the trade embargo could mean opportunities for smaller businesses as well as farmers in Delahunt's congressional district, which includes the Cape and Islands. His office has fielded queries from cranberry growers and small dairy farmers who have looked at the potential market in Cuba for their goods.

Delahunt said next year the Democratic-controlled Congress will likely pass legislation to ease travel restrictions for U.S. residents with relatives in Cuba. Under current U.S. policy, those with relatives in Cuba may visit only once every few years, a policy Delahunt describes as ''cruel and ridiculous.''

Delahunt said Congress will also ease regulations on restrictions on money transfers sent to Cubans, now limited to $300 per Cuban household in a three-month period, according to the U.S. State Department's Web site.

The money must be sent through State Department-certified institutions.

In return, however, members of the bipartisan delegation will be looking for evidence that Cuba will ''give political status to dissidents and democratic activists,'' Delahunt said.

Delahunt, a member of the House International Relations Committee, is co-chairman of the Cuba working group with U.S. Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz.

''We feel it is timely to make an effort to determine whether there is the political will - on the part of the Cubans - to initiate a real dialogue,'' Delahunt said.

He said the visit is unrelated to the recent olive branch extended by Raul Castro, brother of the ailing Fidel Castro.

Earlier this month the younger Castro - who has served as interim president since his brother underwent surgery in July - proposed talks with the U.S. to ease travel restrictions and bring an end to the trade embargo first imposed by the U.S. in 1961.

The Bush administration soundly rejected the Cuban overture.

Source: Cape Cod Times

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