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Posted March 22, 2005 by publisher in Cuba-US Trade

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By James Varney | Time Picayune

As Gov. Kathleen Blanco and her circle of advisers darted from meetings to meals during their time in Havana, two questions loomed like the giant swastika Cuban authorities have painted outside the U.S. Interests Section downtown:

Just how much in Louisiana products would Cuba’s government buy, and would Blanco come face-to-face with that government’s dictator, Fidel Castro?

To many, the second mattered more than the first. For all the talk about how Blanco’s mission was focused on trade, not politics, it was Castro, encrusted with the infamy and adulation amassed during a half century as Latin America’s revolutionary patriarch, who dominated the trip.

Rice sales are one thing, but whether Blanco and “The Bearded One,” as Castro is sometimes called, would formally meet preoccupied the governor’s delegation, U.S. diplomats, Cuban-Americans who protested her visit to the Communist island, and a knot of reporters who tailed Blanco.

Certainly, the dangers attached to such a meeting were considerable. Blanco said repeatedly that she did not want her trip to become fodder for Castro’s perpetual propaganda machine, turning her into a high-ranking U.S. elected official who enhanced his stature on the oppressed island.

And, on the domestic front, a tete--tete with the leftist icon would further infuriate critics of Blanco’s decision to go to Cuba in the first place, and it could be exploited by her political opponents.

Blanco’s inner circle weighed these questions even before the trip, as they acknowledged last week after the anticipated encounter occurred.

The meeting, a two-hour lobster luncheon in a government building outside of Havana, was held away from reporters and photographers. It all came together at the last second and like something out of a spy novel, the Louisiana delegation insists, with Blanco being approached in a church courtyard just after shedding her media followers.

No record of the meeting exists beyond the descriptions from the participants, a calculated blackout in the opinion of some Cuban-American groups and state Republican officials.

“If I were someone involved with public relations for the governor, I wouldn’t want a picture of her with a dictator and terrorist out there,” said George Fowler, the New Orleans-based attorney for militantly anti-Castro Cuban American National Foundation and one of the most vociferous opponents of Blanco’s mission.

Blanco staffers and some economic development officials, who offered their impressions on the condition that they not be identified, denied they negotiated an essentially off-the-record chitchat with Castro. In fact, there were no negotiations at all, said Denise Bottcher, Blanco’s press secretary.

On the other hand, although Cuban authorities never proffered a meeting as Blanco prepared for the Cuba trip, her aides say they accepted the opinion of various Cuban experts that Castro would seek her out in Havana and try to score a propaganda coup.

Blanco wanted to avoid that at all costs, officials say. Part of that desire was personal, because she, like most Americans, has deep qualms about Castro’s human rights record. But officials concede political calculations played a part, too.

The governor had huddled in Baton Rouge with her chief of staff, Andy Kopplin; her secretary of economic development, Michael Olivier; and Bottcher, in an effort to figure out how to dodge the dictator’s unwelcome embrace.

Their strategy sessions were complicated, however, by the fact that the Cubans could not or would not provide a fixed itinerary. Upon the advice of the State Department, Louisiana officials said they scratched off any staged appearances by Blanco at schools or hospitals, just the places that, in the past, the Cubans have taken visitors to showcase their alleged accomplishments.

The fluid schedule nevertheless left some of Blanco’s staff uneasy before departure.

“I understood the political risk, Andy understood the risk, and you can be sure the governor did,” Bottcher said. Olivier, who has traveled to Cuba several times and long championed it as an emerging trading partner, “was made to see the risk,” Bottcher said.

Indeed, the possibility of the meeting, which Bottcher said she hoped would not occur, pervaded the delegation’s time in Havana.

“The whole time you always had the feeling a meeting was upcoming, because you knew Castro would want that meeting, and it could happen at any time,” Bottcher said. “But I’m not sure we ever arrived at a conclusion about how we were going to deal with it if it happened.”

Incessant rumors

For most of the trip, it looked as if it wouldn’t. When Blanco landed at the Havana airport, the welcoming party consisted of Pedro Alvarez, who heads the Cuban ministry in charge of agricultural imports known as Alimport, and a few party apparatchiks who bobbed around Blanco throughout her stay.

But Castro wasn’t there. After a brief news conference, Blanco, some two score of Louisiana business people and government officials, Alvarez and his crew piled into a line of waiting cars and sped to the Melia Cohiba Hotel, a building near the capital city’s Malecon, or seawall, which functions as a kind of boardwalk. The Melia is removed from the dense downtown zones, and there is little pedestrian traffic around it. It is often the designated hotel for “official” delegates to Havana.

Almost immediately, rumors cropped up, as they would for the duration of Blanco’s mission, that Castro would most likely appear at the next event. In that first instance, it was a welcoming dinner hosted by the Cubans.

The dinner was held at El Lagito, a so-called “protocol house” in the once-posh district of Miramar, hard against the Caribbean Sea and several miles west of Havana’s heart. In a twist that Fowler said was deliberate and that he found particularly galling, the Cubans apparently selected his former family abode to wine and dine the Louisiana contingent.

Both the timing and the setting seemed right for Castro to appear.

The house was quite secure, the crowd small, and Castro moves about most frequently at night, according to several Havana sources familiar with his habits. Evening events are the most common for him to meet and greet official visitors, they said.

And he was only a few blocks away at the time, addressing a women’s conference in the giant auditorium of another government building.

However, Blanco was not feeling well and wanted to return to the hotel, a situation Kopplin said he relayed to Alvarez early in the night. Kopplin did not characterize any comments Cuban officials made to him that night as “a formal ask.”

And so the supper ended with neither Castro in his fatigues nor any clear indication whether he even had planned on dropping by that night. As it happened, his speech stretched more than six hours. He didn’t stop talking to the women’s conference until after midnight.

Not a spare minute

Wednesday, Blanco’s only full day in Havana, was a whirlwind of meetings and news conferences.

Her entourage, still blanketed by Alvarez and his aides, as well as two omnipresent government-appointed tourism officials who handled the string of cars and drivers, left the hotel early. Olivier said there wasn’t a spare minute built into the schedule, and that he deliberately kept the spotlight on business.

“I was actually hoping a meeting with Castro wouldn’t occur, because I know how long that can take,” he said.

State officials said they were confident they wouldn’t be “blindsided” by a meeting with Castro that day, if only because the 79-year-old leader must have been exhausted from the previous night’s stem-winder.

The day was mostly spent in meetings at Alimport offices, as the state and private business people tried to cut deals on their products, and resulted in Blanco signing a $15 million agreement with Alvarez for Cuba to purchase Louisiana-produced goods.

But for all the fulminating the business people did about the trade embargo and about the media’s focus on Castro, and despite the Blanco team’s efforts to downplay the political shadings of the visit, the governor now acknowledges that politics did, at one point, come to the forefront in the mission’s deal-making.

The memorandum of understanding proposed with Louisiana contained language calling on Blanco and other state officials to lobby for relaxations of the embargo when they returned, officials said. A clause like that has been standard in such deals and has begun to attract the attention as a troubling quid pro quo for doing business with Castro.

When asked at a news conference in Havana’s landmark Hotel Nacional whether she had signed an arrangement with that language, Blanco simply said she had not. Last week, Bottcher elaborated that the controversial term was included in the drafts, and that Blanco refused to sign until it was removed.

Messages to the U.S.

But Blanco didn’t need that back-room hardball to remind her of the political situation.

For example, the road she traveled that morning to Alimport tracks the Malecon and passes the U.S. Interests Section, a kind of de facto embassy. Although Washington does not maintain formal relations with Castro, the United States has perhaps the largest contingent of diplomats in Havana, and their office is a prominent one, a white concrete building surrounded by Cuban guards.

In December, the U.S. chief of mission, James Cason, had put a giant “75” in Christmas lights on the building, a reminder of the number of dissidents Castro imprisoned in a notorious 2003 crackdown.

Furious at Cason’s stunt, Cuban authorities built an amphitheater in front of the building and erected walls of loudspeakers that blasted Cuban music for hours at a time during the day. The stage remains, and on the high plywood walls behind it the Cubans painted a red swastika that directly faces the U.S. headquarters’ entrance.

Lest that menacing symbol fail to make the point, the Cubans also put a billboard atop the Malecon alongside the building labeling the “USA” a fascist nation.

In the afternoon, Blanco again drove past the Interests Section on her way to meet Cason at his home, yielding to a request by State Department officials, despite the delegation’s hopes of steering clear of politics. Indeed, U.S. diplomats said a formal offer to Blanco to meet with Oswaldo Paya, probably the island’s most renowned dissident, was rejected by Baton Rouge.

The residence the United States maintains in Miramar is almost a caricature of tropical resplendence, a 65-room mansion on six manicured acres dotted with royal palms. When Blanco arrived there with a small group, Paya had just left after downing a beer and talking to two reporters.

On the back patio, Cason’s menagerie of parakeets emits such a racket that conversation is difficult, but Blanco heard his opinion on Castro seeking an audience quite clearly.

“He told us it wasn’t a question of if, but when,” Bottcher said.

Not dressed for a summit

By the following morning, though, after a dinner hosted this time by the Louisiana delegation, Blanco only had hours left in Cuba. The governor, still feeling less than her best, and the business people gathered in the Melia lobby. Alvarez and the usual squad of apparatchiks fluttered about, too.

Nothing suggested a meeting with Castro was imminent, and, when asked whether the leader might show at the airport, Alvarez offered no insights.

Still, Bottcher said Alvarez seemed fidgety, looking at his watch and asking when the group would be ready to depart. He said the delegation had to hurry if it was going to visit a Havana church he had selected.

“Looking back, I guess they were concerned about the meeting,” she said. “But that morning, when we were in the lobby, I thought we were home free.”

Blanco set off on a tourist trek that began at the sprawling Plaza de Armas, a military parade ground, and wound its way up a slight hill away from the sea to El Floridita, a haunt for daiquiris that was a favorite of Ernest Hemingway, the American writer and Nobel laureate who maintained a home in Cuba. As she left the bar, Blanco was asked by an Associated Press reporter based in Havana whether she regretted not seeing Castro during her visit.

“No,” she replied. “I never really expected to.”

And then the long-running minuet entered its final, clandestine steps. Blanco went to St. Francis of Assisi Church. There, she strolled about the grounds while Alvarez and his lieutenants began to huddle and talk excitedly, Bottcher said. Soon, it was obvious to all that something was afoot, and then the invitation was made.

“It was absolutely the first inkling I or anyone else had that was coming,” Olivier said. “Yeah, I mean we were all dressed up, did you notice? We’re all wearing polo shirts and Dockers, ready to travel—hardly the attire you’d have if you planned to meet with a president.”

Alvarez, relaying the message, reportedly told Blanco she did not have to meet Castro, that it was only a request. But Blanco and others in her group have said they thought it would be impolite to refuse, and they didn’t want to jeopardize the $15 million deal.

The group drove to a conference center on the city’s outskirts and waited about an hour. Finally, Castro came in, his beard noticeably thinner and grayer than in the days when, thick and black, it emerged as a symbol of New World communism.

Blanco presented Castro with a book about Louisiana, but some of those at the meeting said that was not evidence she knew a meeting was imminent. In fact, she planned to give the book to Alvarez at the airport, and Olivier had to scrounge up some cufflinks from another bag as a present for the Alimport minister.

On the whole, participants said the lunch was memorable in ways they would not have predicted. “There’s not a lot of power left behind the voice, but you can see the spirit in his eyes, and he has a lot of mental energy,” Bottcher said, noting the dictator still limps from a fall last year.

“The image you have of him is not the man you were looking at, and then you can’t stop thinking of all the bad things he’s done. The whole thing was downright eerie.”

  1. Follow up post #1 added on March 22, 2005 by YoungCuban with 409 total posts

    Blanco for President!

    Enough said!

  2. Follow up post #2 added on March 23, 2005 by bernie with 199 total posts

    “blanco’ deep qualms about Castro’ human rights record”

    Did Blanco forget how many negroes have been lynched in
    Louisiana. Blanco should look in her own backyard before
    pointing a finger at others.  Blanco points a finger, not
    realizing the that three fingers are pointing back at her.

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