Dinner With Castro

Carole King serenaded Fidel Castro with "You've Got a Friend" at a weekend dinner, and U.S. representatives from California shared wines from Napa and Sonoma -- part of the latest effort to change U.S. policy toward Cuba.

Cuba has been under a U.S. trade embargo since shortly after Castro defeated the CIA-backed invasion at the Bay of Pigs in 1961, and the Bush administration has insisted that U.S.-Cuba relations will not improve until Cuba embraces democracy and human rights.

"That might be the executive branch's view, but that is not the legislative branch's view, and we make policy," said Rep. Diane Watson, a Democrat from Los Angeles. "More and more lawmakers are coming here for themselves, seeing for themselves, developing good will."

Since 1999, eight U.S. senators and 18 members of the House of Representatives have visited Cuba coinciding with partly successful efforts on Capitol Hill to ease or eliminate U.S. restrictions on trade with and travel to the communist country.

"We ought to be having a better tone about building bridges rather than building walls," Sam Farr, Democratic U.S. representative from Carmel, said Monday.

Reps. Mike Thompson, of St. Helena, and Bob Filner, of San Diego, both Democrats, filled out the congressional delegation. The group also included representatives of California's rice and wine industries and King, an Idaho resident who spends much of her time in California.

They said their dinner with Castro at the Palace of the Revolution stretched from 9 p.m. Sunday until about 4:30 a.m. Monday. During the meal, King also performed a new song, "Love Makes the World."

"My songs were a message I wanted to bring here," said King, who celebrated her 60th birthday in Havana on Saturday. "I came here to learn because my life, my work, is all about communication. We should be setting an example of good will."

Delegation members said they brought bottles of California cabernet sauvignon and merlot to Castro's dinner. Earlier Sunday evening, the California delegation shared a bottle with 17 noted Cuban dissidents at an Old Havana hotel.

"We are accustomed to meeting with dissidents because we have them in our own districts," said Farr. "I think that listening to the voice of dissent can be helpful."

Thompson said he supported greater freedoms for Cubans, including free elections.

"I'm a strong supporter of democracy but I don't think the embargo gets us there," he said.

During their meal, Castro reiterated that Cuba will buy more American food if Washington sends more encouraging signals.

"He said that if the financing was available that Cuba would buy a billion dollars worth of American food each year," said Farr.

Castro initially said that $35 million in food contracts signed late last year with U.S. companies were a one-time deal.

But last month, Cuban officials began saying that they would consider more purchases if Washington expedited the licensing process or allowed American financing for the transactions.

After Hurricane Michelle struck in November, the U.S. government agreed to temporarily speed up the process to obtain export licenses required under the American embargo for those first sales.

Before Michelle struck, Havana had refused to take advantage of a U.S. law passed in 2000 allowing the direct food sales.