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US senators say Raul Castro eager to maintain US relations

MICHAEL WEISSENSTEIN
CORRECTS STATE THAD COCHRAN REPRESENTS FROM MINNESOTA TO MISSISSIPPI - U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, center, shoots pictures of reporters during a press conference alongside Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico, right, and Senator Thad Cochran of Mississippi, left, at the U.S. embassy in Havana, Cuba, Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2017. The U.S. delegation met Tuesday with Cuba's President Raul Castro. (AP Photo/Desmond Boylan)

HAVANA (AP) — Cuban President Raul Castro appears eager to maintain better relations with the United States and gave a group of U.S. Congress members signed copies of a recent speech expressing his willingness to negotiate with President Donald Trump, Sen. Patrick Leahy said Wednesday.

Leahy and four other members of Congress spoke to reporters Wednesday at the end of a three-day trip to Cuba that included a Tuesday night meeting with Castro. The others included Republican Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi, who spoke favorably of U.S. relations with Cuba, although he did not weigh in on specific aspects of President Barack Obama's detente with Castro. That policy is under review by the Trump administration.

Leahy and Democratic members of the delegation expressed confidence that the opening with Cuba would not be reversed, despite Trump's public pledges to do so.

The Vermont Democrat, a longtime advocate of better U.S. relations with Cuba, said Castro expressed his desire to keep carrying out market-oriented internal reforms and improve ties with Washington. Leahy said Castro gave the group two signed copies of a speech he made in the Dominican Republic last month expressing a desire to work with Trump.

Cuban officials have publicly said nothing about relations with the U.S. apart from that speech, in which Castro said he wanted to "express Cuba's will to keep negotiating bilateral affairs with the U.S. ... and pursue respectful dialogue and cooperation on themes of common interest with the new government of President Donald Trump."

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