05/23/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Bobby Rush: A Black Panther In Cuba

Rep. Bobby Rush says he was a little unsure of himself when he first arrived at Fidel Castro's house in Cuba. The retired Communist dictator enthusiastically extended his hand and said, "Bobby, welcome to my home!" Rush was stunned.

"It was kinda awkward," the Illinois Democrat told the Huffington Post. "I couldn't say 'Mr. President'" -- Castro installed his brother Raúl as president of Cuba in 2006 -- "so I called him Mr. Fidel."

Rush and other members of the Congressional Black Caucus made waves with their visit to Cuba during the April recess, during which they met with both Castros. Rush said that Raúl Castro told him the "Cuban military and American military have been in discussions and having monthly meetings for a number of years now" (something Raúl also told actor Sean Penn). And the ailing Fidel Castro was very eager to talk Christianity, comparing the spread of Christianity to the Communist revolution.

The trip was billed as an opportunity to look at expanded trade opportunities. After the visit, members of the delegation called for the U.S. to relax its trade embargo with Cuba.

In a Wednesday blog item on the Huffington Post, Rush argues for expanded trade with the island nation. The congressman's subcommittee on commerce, trade and consumer protection will hold a hearing about trade relations with Cuba next Monday, April 27.

"We got a market in need of American goods and services 90 miles off our shore," Rush said. "We're approaching the main rainy season and the Cuban people are in desperate need of building supplies after damage caused by the recent hurricane...They own half a million damaged homes. American-manufactured supplies and equipment would have immediate impact."

President Obama has moved toward liberalizing its Cuba policy, announcing relaxed restrictions on travel and remittances for Cuban Americans before attending the Summit of the Americas last week.

But the administration stopped short of fully lifting the embargo. Cuba isn't exactly a democratically elected government, after all, and it sports a record of human rights abuses. And plenty of members of Congress oppose relaxing the Cuba blockade. Three Democratic members of the House wrote a letter last week urging the president not to allow unlimited remittances to family members in Cuba, saying the Cuban government's skimming of payments means the payments facilitate "the regime's finance of its repressive state security apparatus."

Rush brushes off that kind of criticism with the glass-houses argument.

"I don't believe in pontificating from a platform of superiority. Every time you point a finger it's pointed right back at you," he said. "I'm a person who can bear witness to significant human rights violations right here in America. In my own state there is strong, convincing evidence that there were people on death row who were tortured."

As a founding member of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panthers, Rush likes to tout revolutionary roots of his own. Castro told him he admired the Black Panthers' attitude toward human rights.

Human rights in Cuba were not a prime topic of conversation at Castro's place, which Rush describes as a modest ranch house. ("It's almost like he's living in bungalow on Carpenter Avenue" in Chicago, Rush said. The delegation that visited Mr. Fidel's house chatted religion, literature, and U.S. Politics. Castro was wearing Wilson athletic gear.

"He spends most of his days reading right and thinking," Rush said. "He's a person who is keenly aware of what's going on in the States. He predicted Obama would win because of his message."

Rush was surprised to hear Castro talk about religion. "He talked a lot about Christianity, about Jesus, about how the Christian experience has been a revolutionary experience. It changed the world and endured over the years. Compared to 50 years of communist revolution in Cuba -- it doesn't compare."

"I think he's accepted the practice of religion in Cuba," Rush said.

The congressman said he not only visited church on the island, but actually delivered a sermon through an interpreter.

"I preached at a Baptist church on Palm Sunday," he said. "I could have been in a Baptist church on the south side of Chicago." The congregants were "very much enthusiastic and it was the same order of service that you would experience in any Baptist church in America."

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