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U.S. Legislators in Cuba to jump start dialogue

HAVANA (Reuters) - The largest delegation from the U.S. Congress to visit Cuba since 1959 arrived in Havana on Friday seeking to open a dialogue with the communist government of acting President Raul Castro despite White House opposition to such contacts.

The stepping aside of ailing Cuban leader Fidel Castro, who has not appeared in public for four months, has set the stage for ending political hostility dating from the start of the Cold War, they said.

"We sense this is an important time and we hope to meet with officials and hopefully launch a new era in U.S.-Cuba relations," said Rep. Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican.

The six Democrats and four Republicans hope to meet with Raul Castro, who took over July 31 after his brother underwent emergency surgery for an undisclosed illness.

Raul Castro two weeks ago said he was open to negotiations with Washington to settle the longstanding dispute that emerged after the Castros seized power in a 1959 revolution and turned Cuba into a Soviet ally.

The Bush administration, which opposes a "dynastic succession" from one Castro brother to the other, has rejected talks in the absence of democratic reform to Cuba's one-party state.

The State Department opposed the trip, delegation members said. "The bottom line is, we think it is the right thing to do," said Massachusetts Democrat Jim McGovern. "I've long thought our policy toward Cuba has been arrogant and dumb."

The visiting legislators said momentum was gathering in Washington for a new chapter in ties with Cuba and changes in U.S. policy are likely next year under a Democrat-controlled Congress.

"The U.S. Congress come January is under a different leadership and I think that on a bipartisan basis there is a desire to engage in dialogue and determine areas where we can agree, despite the fact that we will, I am sure, continue to have profound differences with the Cuban government," said Rep. William Delahunt, a Massachusetts Democrat.

Assistant Secretary of State Tom Shannon, the top U.S. diplomat for Latin America, on Wednesday criticized a greater crackdown on dissent since the younger Castro took over.

Delahunt declined to comment on whether the delegation will meet with Cuban dissidents who are seeking democratic changes.

Flake and Delahunt are co-chairmen of the Cuba Working Group in the House of Representatives that plans to work to relax a ban on travel and a cap on family remittances to Cuba next year.

They favor engagement and trade with Cuba rather than sanctions as the best U.S. policy to foster change on the island.

Delegation members said their requested meeting with Raul

Castro has not been confirmed. (Additional reporting by Marc Frank)
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