``We are thrilled to be here,'' Rep. Nick Lampson, a Democrat who supports pending legislation to lift the trade embargo on food and medicine sales to Cuba, said as the group arrived Monday.
``With commodity prices as they are we are doing everything we can to expand our markets,'' said Steve Pringle, legislative director of the Texas Farm Bureau who accompanied the lawmaker on the nine-person trade mission.
Just a few miles away, Rep. Danny Davis, D-Ill., was learning about Cuba's public health care system. ``I am interested philosophically and practically in normalizing relations with Cuba.
Lampson and Pringle are among more than a dozen U.S. lawmakers who have visited Cuba since the Clinton administration announced measures to increase personal contacts between Americans and Cubans while leaving the embargo intact.
But more often than not, the visiting lawmakers have said they support at least a partial lifting of the U.S. trade sanctions directed at Cuba since the early 1960s.
Two weeks ago, the Senate's Democratic leader and a fellow farm-state senator spoke strongly for easing restrictions on food and drug sales to Cuba after returning from a weekend visit that included a seven-hour meeting with President Fidel Castro.
Senate Minority Leader Thomas Daschle of South Dakota and Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., went to Cuba just nine days after the Senate voted to allow essentially unrestricted food and drug sales to the island.
Efforts over the years by congressional opponents of the embargo normally have been easily defeated. But the Aug. 4 vote reflected that lawmakers are more eager now to open markets for American farmers.
The Texas' delegation's five-day visit, which will include meetings with Cuban farmers, officials in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Agriculture and the chief of the U.S. Interest Section in Havana.
``We hope to make contacts and develop relationships with Cuban officials so that Southeast Texas rice farmers can export their fine products into this country in the future,'' Lampson said from Washington in announcing the trip.
``I do not believe that the United States should ever use sanctions on food and medical sales as a foreign policy tool,'' Lampson said in the earlier announcement.
Not all of Lampson's congressional colleagues agree.
Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., who was born in Cuba, criticized Daschle and Dorgan after their trip. In a news release he said they were ``feasting with Cuban dictator Fidel Castro while the Cuban people are condemned to misery and oppression by the dictatorship.''
© Copyright 1999 The Associated Press