US women leaders meet Raul Castro's daughter

A group of U.S. women leaders met with Cuban President Raul Castro's daughter Monday for an exchange on topics including gender, reproductive health and gay rights.

The delegation, which arrived in Havana on Sunday, includes Democratic political strategist Donna Brazile and former U.S. Rep. Jane Harman, a California Democrat who resigned in February and now heads the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

"I believe that Cuba is our immediate neighbor and it is time to liberalize U.S. policy toward Cuba," Harman said.

"It is very exciting to hear about some of the social changes going on in your country," she added, apparently referring to a host of economic reforms initiated by Raul Castro to try to boost Cuba's flagging economy.

The changes, which were approved by a Communist Party congress in April, have yet to be enacted into law but would loosen the government's tight control over economic matters and allow some free-market activity.

The U.S. group talked with Mariela Castro, head of the island's National Sexual Education Center and a champion for gay rights. They were shown a report on Cuba's recent campaign against homophobia, though reporters were not allowed to remain for the presentation.

Castro, the niece of former President Fidel Castro, said such encounters can help improve U.S.-Cuban relations, which have been in a deep freeze for decades.

"This strikes me as the healthiest thing there is," she said. "We want there to be transparent relations that respect our sovereignty and are not manipulative or based on conditions."

"I believe there is a great affinity between our people, that we have a great desire to transform the world and that we can work together to achieve it," Castro added.

The visit was organized by the Center for Democracy in the Americas, which studies U.S. policy toward countries in the region and opposes Washington's decades-old trade embargo on Cuba. The delegation will be in Cuba through Thursday.

"Our hope is that we will learn from the Cuban women and that maybe we have something to offer in exchange," said Sarah Stephens, the group's executive director. "We look forward to many more meetings with women in the government, women in the religious community, ordinary women on the street."