The Burlington Hawk-Eye
The Hawk Eye
Home From Havana
Havana, Cuba I came home from Havana last night, from a confrontation with Communist Cuba, including
4 hours in the all-pervading presence of Fidel Castro.
Impressions of Cuba, of its people and progress are as contradictory as the contrast between Castro's fierce reputation and his warm eyes and soft hands.
Through the visiting U.S. press, and through Sen. George McGovern whom we accompanied, Castro sent clear signals to Washington that Cuba wants improved relations with the U.S. He is waiting for return signals, chief of which, he insists, must be a lifting of the U.S. economic embargo.
The 14-year embargo which Cubans call a blockade has severely hurt both their economy and their pride.
Nevertheless, in his Wednesday night press conference, in his only statement in clear, if slightly uncertain English, Castro told us with deep emotion: "We wish for the people of the U.S. a wish of friendship. I understand that it is now easy because we belong to two different worlds. But we are vecinos-como se dice neighbors . . . well, we are neighbors and, in one way or another, we owe it to be (should) live in peace."
In a free-wheeling 3 1/2-hour farm tour earlier Wednesday, as we pursued him among the cud-chewing Holsteins, in the later one-hour press conference, and still later in private talks with McGovern which lasted until 3:15 a.m. Thursday, Castro:
Showed exceptional warmth and friendliness toward his visitors.
Agreed to consider release of the nine Americans still held in Cuba as political prisoners, and to make a decision on them soon.
Agreed to consider the return of $2 million in ransom money taken to Cuba in a hijacked Southern Airways plane in 1972.
Expressed interest in importing U.S. feed grains, as well as food and medicine for the Cuban people.
While we were hearing these signals, the White House was restating its support of the continued embargo. But McGovern told us, after his long talk with Castro, "I believe the embargo should be lifted. It is foolish and self-defeating. It no longer serves any purpose."
The only actual step in the direction of new relations was Castro's quick decision to let the parents of Cuban-born Boston Red Sox pitcher Luis Tiant go to Boston to see their son play. Tiant had written the request, which was given by Massachusetts Sen. Brooke to McGovern, who passed it on to Castro Wednesday afternoon. By Wednesday night Castro assured McGovern it was "all set."
That is a small thing, except to the Tiant family, but McGovern described it as an important start to a new version of the Chinese ping-pong caper when an exchange of table tennis teams led to new U.S.-Peking relations.
McGovern proposed a similar exchange to Castro with a U.S. baseball team possibly this year's World Series winner going to Havana to play an exhibition with the Cuban national champions from Oriente province; and, in turn a visit by the Cuban team to the U.S. He also suggested that UCLA, Indiana, Maryland, or some other top basketball team might visit Cuba. Castro, a sports fan, reacted favorably, McGovern said.
In this locker room atmosphere, I handed Castro a baseball autographed by the Burlington Bees, which he took with obvious delight. In fact, when an aide tried to relieve him of it, he jerked it back and put it in his pocket.
Castro granted no private interviews to the press, although I managed two brief exchanges and handshakes with him. But once he became available, we had marvelous photo opportunities, hampered only by our own mad scramble between the newspaper and TV types for the best shooting positions.
One roll of Hawk Eye film was furnished to United Press International, flown out of Cuba on a special film plane Thursday morning, and one picture on it of McGovern and Castro in a Russian-made command car was moved on the national photo wire.
The Cubans invited me to stay on, but the time and the difficulty involved in getting out later through Jamaica or Mexico persuaded me to be on the last (and only) Havana-to-Miami flight when it lifted off Jose Marti airport at 5:30 a.m. Thursday. I was supposed to be home by 8 a.m. Friday, but Ozark was fogged in at St. Louis airport.
In a small way, the embargo has already been broken. We got in there and out again. We even managed to get a few forbidden cigars through customs. The door has been opened a crack and it is not likely to be slammed all the way shut again.
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