By Jeff Franks
HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuban President Raul Castro's daughter is scheduled to visit California next week to speak at a conference of experts on Latin America during a rare U.S. trip by a member of Cuba's ruling family.
Sexologist Mariela Castro, 50, will discuss Cuba's policies on sexual issues on May 24 at a Latin American Studies Association (LASA) conference in San Francisco, an association spokesman said on Wednesday.
Mariela Castro heads the communist island nation's National Center for Sex Education and is an outspoken advocate for gay rights.
Her father Raul Castro, 80, took over as president four years ago from his ailing older brother Fidel Castro, who ruled the island for 49 years after taking power in a 1959 revolution.
A U.S. State Department spokesman in Washington refused to confirm during a briefing whether Mariela Castro had been granted a visa to visit the country, which has been Cuba's ideological foe for more than half a century.
The spokesman for LASA, an international group based at the University of Pittsburgh for people who study Latin America, said she was registered to attend the conference, scheduled for the speech and likely has a visa.
In Washington, U.S. Senator Robert Menendez, an anti-Castro Cuban exile, said in a statement he was ?disappointed by the decision to give Mariela Castro a visa and questioned whether the government had the authority to do so.
"?Ms. Castro is a vociferous advocate of the (Castro) regime and opponent of democracy, who has defended the regime's brutal repression of democracy activists," the New Jersey Democrat said.
"Neither the United States Government nor the Latin American Studies Association should be in the business of providing a totalitarian regime, like the one in Cuba, with a platform from which to espouse its twisted rhetoric," Menendez added.
Menendez said a U.S. presidential proclamation prohibited travel visas for members of Cuba's government or its Communist Party. A State Department spokesman told Reuters in an email the same proclamation ?provided authority for granting exceptions.
Neither Mariela Castro nor anyone with knowledge of her visa situation could be reached for comment.
Her uncle Fidel Castro, 85, has been to the United States several times. It is not known that either she or her father have visited the United States, located just 90 miles across the Florida Straits from Cuba.
U.S.-Cuba relations have warmed slightly since President Barack Obama took office. But progress has come almost to a halt since U.S. contractor Alan Gross was arrested in Havana in December 2009 and sentenced to 15 years in prison for setting up Internet networks under a semi-covert U.S. program aimed at toppling the Cuban government.
(Additional reporting by Mohammed Arshad in Washington and Nelson Acosta in Havana; Editing by Tom Brown and Will Dunham)