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Posted July 10, 2005 by publisher in Cuba Travel

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FT.com | Keir Simmons

The man at the Cuban Embassy in London told me I didn’t have a chance. “In all my time here,” he said, “I have never granted an interview between the president and a member of the British media.”

In spite of the warning from the embassy official I boarded an aircraft for Cuba hoping to get a television interview with Fidel Castro. On board are diplomats, a celebrity boxer and the billionaire Sir Richard Branson, all with champagne glasses in hand. This is Virgin Atlantic’s inaugural flight to Cuba, the first British airline for years to fly direct from London to Havana. Seldom since the days of dictator Fulgencio Batista can such a group have arrived in Cuba.

I expected that after decades of socialist rule Cuba would be a grey, monochromatic place. But as we fly over the island it is lush and green. It is spring and the flamboyan trees are flowering bright red, like bursts of flame across the countryside. When we land I find the people are as exuberant as the flowers.

On the Tarmac there are children in straw hats dancing and laughing, the girls clutching their simple red and white dresses flamenco style. Two colourful semi-naked Cuban women climb out on to the wing of the 747 arm in arm with Branson and ham it up for the photographers. Virgin’s new routes are often kicked off by Branson heading straight into a photo opportunity. In India he came off the aircraft dressed in the style of a maharajah of yesteryear and in Australia he stood on the wing with two surfers and two beach babes.

Branson tells me he feels he has a lot in common with Castro, they are both mavericks, underdogs, fighters. But there is another side to Branson, away from the photographers. His father and mother and his 20-year-old son climb off the aircraft. Branson seems to take his family everywhere with him. His father, Ted, tells me he has been on every inaugural flight since Virgin started flying to New York. “It’s a wonderful way to see the world,” his mother, Eve, agrees, “when your son owns an airline.”

As we head in to Havana, having heard the stories of repression in Cuba, I start looking for something darker behind the smiles that greeted us at the airport. Across the green fields in this corner of communism I can see the crumbling concrete flats that must be people’s homes.

Our hotel, Parque Central, in the centre of Havana is far removed from ordinary Cuban lives. The neo-colonial lobby contains bamboo chairs, small palm trees and has a high glass ceiling. The rooms are simple and not as well air-conditioned as the lobby but probably pretty luxurious for Cuba.

My hope is that President Castro will come to meet Branson and that I will be ready with some questions. I manage to speak to the vice-minister for tourism, “Will the president show up?” I ask, “Would it be possible to interview him?”

“We have no way of knowing, maybe you will, maybe you won’t”, he replies. Quelle surprise Cuba is a secretive place.

Everywhere our group goes, smartly dressed Cuban men follow, wearing earpieces and watching us intently. It is easily possible to imagine Jim Wormold, Graham Greene’s fictional spy, living here. And things do not seem to have changed much since his time. I travel across town in a 1940s blue Buick and walk along cobbled streets. Doors left open reveal rooms full of women working at old-fashioned sewing machines.

There is music everywhere and it is almost always live rather than recorded. I sit in a cafe and a beautiful woman, who must be in her 60s, begins singing. A man who may be her husband sits on a stool and plays
the guitar. She strides around the cafe her face expressing the music, her arms moving in a flourish. Outside people stop and gaze, they listen to song after song. In the heat they stand motionless and their dark brown eyes
seem to hold all the secrets of their country.

Cuba is both vibrant and haunted. Tourists can now go scuba diving off the “Isle of Youth”, the same island on which Castro was imprisoned until “the revolution triumphed”. But in so many respects Havana is stuck in the past, somewhere in the first half of the 20th century.

My Havana guide takes me to Cathedral Square, then Revolution Square, with the famous image of Che Guevara looking down from the side of a building. “This is the presidential palace, where President Castro is supposed to have an office”, he tells me. I realise the man I want to talk to doesn’t even tell his own people where he works. Later we roll down a street of large houses. “Presumably the end of this street is where our leader lives,” my guide says, “but no one knows.”

In the evening, the Branson cavalcade moves to a nightclub for an inaugural flight party. Graham Greene would have recognised the club. It ought to be called the Tropicana it has the palm trees and the tall chorus girls dressed in bikinis and feathers. The cabaret fills the stage, perhaps 25 people, singers and dancers, plus
the band.

Then someone arrives who electrifies the place. He is flanked by bodyguards and officials and the photographers go into a frenzy. He has a large beard, a strong nose and wavy short hair. He is unmistakably a Castro.

But he is not Fidel, he is Fidel’s son Fidelito. It is incredible how closely the son resembles his father, not just his facial features but the way he presents himself. This is the man who during his formative years saw little of his revolutionary father. First Fidel was in prison, then in exile. As a boy Fidelito was himself kidnapped. And yet here he is visibly determined to be just like his old man he is, as his name suggests, Fidel lite.

Fidelito sits down next to Branson, and I realise I am not going to see the president. The son has been sent as a stand-in (and I am told he is not doing interviews either). The man in the Cuban embassy was right. My consolation is to watch the two men together. And it is one of the world’s great contradictions seeing a flamboyant billionaire with the look-alike son of one of the world’s last communist leaders.

Keir Simmons is a correspondent for ITV News. He was a guest of Virgin Atlantic

  1. Follow up post #1 added on July 11, 2005 by Cubana with 282 total posts

    Quote: “the first British airline for years to fly direct from London to Havana.”

    Err…no. British Airways flew there for three years between 2000 and 2003.

    Nice to know the FT is keeping up its reputation for accuracy!


  2. Follow up post #2 added on July 11, 2005 by yumaguy with 176 total posts

    Cubana, do you know why BA stopped the flights in 2003? Just curious. . .


  3. Follow up post #3 added on July 11, 2005 by Cubana with 282 total posts

    It was because they were not making any money from the exercise. The majority of BA’ profits come from business travellers, not tourists travelling in economy (coach). There were obviously not that many British businessman interested in beating a path to Castro’ door! I travelled to Havana on BA a few times and found the service excellent. It remains to be seen whether Virgin will be any more successful, although I would not be surprised if Richard Branson does make a go of the route.

    Incidentally, I did like this quote in the article: “Branson tells me he feels he has a lot in common with Castro, they are both mavericks, underdogs, fighters.” And dictators? Still, I don’t suppose you get to be a highly successful (and rich) entrepreneur by being a nice guy!!!


  4. Follow up post #4 added on July 11, 2005 by yumaguy with 176 total posts

    Fair enough. I figure then Branson must know where BA went wrong and will market more carefully. He’ obviously a very sharp guy, was probably just trying to ham it up for the cameras but not actually meet Fidel in person since that’ always controversial and can backfire. . .  I’m sure he also wants to be the middle-man when Castro finally dies and people in the UK come in droves to check out “Cuba libre.”  grin


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