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Former Cuban leader Fidel Castro said he "valued the gesture"
Former Cuban leader Fidel Castro said he "valued the gesture" by members of U.S. congress, who are currently in Havana on a five-day visit to explore ways of improving bilateral ties.

The seven-member delegation, headed by Democrat Representative Barbara Lee, arrived in Cuba on Friday, met with current Cuban President Raul Castro, Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez and parliamentarian Ricardo Alarcon to review trade and cultural relations between Washington and Havana which are subject to a 49-year-old trade embargo.

In his regular column, Reflections, published on Tuesday, Fidel Castro said that the delegates were "witnesses of the respect that the North Americans were met with while visiting our country."

Last week a group of senators introduced a bill that would allow U.S. nationals free travel to Cuba for the first time since 1962. The U.S. only allows its nationals to visit Cuba if they are journalists, government officials, on a humanitarian mission or are close relatives.

The 82-year-old Castro said, "We don't need confrontation to exist. We've never been afraid to talk...It's the only way to achieve friendship and peace."

In a sign that relations between the two countries are thawing, Lee said that she was willing to show Cubans that the U.S. is interested in building "a new relationship."

Lee was cited as saying on the Mercury.com website, "America's harsh approach toward our nearest Caribbean neighbor divides families, closes an important market to struggling U.S. farmers, harasses our allies, and is based on antiquated Cold War-era thinking."

And Raul Castro said in a statement after meeting the U.S. delegation that Cuba was "ready for dialogue on any issue as long as there is sovereign equality between the countries, absolute respect for national independence and the inalienable right for self-determination of each country."

Fidel Castro also said that while the whole world is taken up with the global economic crisis, Cuba had no unemployment lines and all its nationals had access to highly-qualified medical treatment, as well as excellent education. "The people on our streets are active and almost always happy, which is the opposite of the stereotypes of Cuba that are met abroad," he said.

"Our country has shown that a little country from the third world, which has undergone persecution, aggression and a blockade, can bear its poverty with dignity," Fidel said.

Raul Castro officially became Cuba's president in February 2008 after his elder brother Fidel ceded power to him in July 2006 on health grounds.

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