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Havana November 6, 1992 - U.S. And Cuba Have No Relations

By Bob Van Leer

  Lines(HAVANA, CUBA, November 6, 1992) - Betty and I arrived in Havana today along with a party of 35 small town journalists from across the United States.

  The trip was sponsored by the National Newspaper Association, an organization of small daily and weekly newspapers.

  In our first day here we were able to see the hostility between the U.S. and Cuban governments. Our party is here on a 10-day study mission to see for ourselves what is happening in Cuba.

  This island nation of nearly 11 million people has been isolated diplomatically and economically from the U.S. for 30 years since Fidel Castro took control of Cuba by ousting Dictator Fulgencio Batista.

  Castro turned Cuba into the principal bastion of Communism in the western hemisphere.

  Our trip started Wednesday evening with a drive to Medford to catch a 7 a.m. flight to Miami. This took all day as we had to go by way of San Francisco and Washington D.C.

  We were up at 4:30 a.m. today to catch a flight of Haiti Trans Air for Havana. At first the idea of traveling on an airliner carrying the name of the poorest country in the western hemisphere and in political turmoil didn't sound too appealing.

  But the plane, a Boeing 727, was well maintained and had a professional crew.

  The flight from Miami to Cuba was only 47 minutes. There are five flights a week, called charters, not scheduled flights, for diplomatic protocol since the U.S. and Cuba don't have diplomatic relations.

11 Million People

  About 2 million of Cuba's 11 million people live in Havana. The island nation is only 90 miles south of Key West, Florida.

  The island is about 775 miles long east to west and from 118 miles to 30 miles wide.

  This is tropical country. The day we arrived it was 31 degrees centigrade, higher than the summer average of 25 degrees.

  The passport check was the slowest we have ever seen. Three to five minutes per person. When you multiply this by the 35 in our party it is a large block of time even with two checking stations open.

  We'd heard a lot about Cubans keeping 1950's U.S. vehicles alive because no more could be imported.

  There are still a few, but most cars on the road appear to be Japanese with a sprinkling of Russian.

  But there aren't too many cars on the roads at all. There are a lot more bicycles plus buses and trucks. The rub is lack of gasoline.

  We were taken to the International Press Center where we were briefed by Carlos Garcia Trapaga, director of the center.

  He told us up front Cuba is facing difficulties and these are caused principally by the 30 year blockade of Cuba by the U.S. He called this "U.S. imperialism" and said it was aggravated by the collapse of the USSR and the Soviet Eastern Block.

  He conceded some factories are shut down because of a shortage of raw materials. But he said these workers were placed elsewhere. He promised us access to government officials and people. We shall see.

  He said, "You will see a people, happy defending the revolution and supporting the maximum leader, Fidel Castro".

  A surprise to us all, including our tour leader, was a requirement we pay $60.00 cash to the Cuban government to become an "accredited journalist".

  In earlier years I would have liked to have been a glamorous foreign correspondent. Now I am one.

  We had lunch in the Morro Castle, a fort originally built in 1630 to prevent pirate ships from entering Havana Bay.

Gasoline Shortage

  One of our guides said, in response to my question, gasoline is $1.20 per gallon, not high. But the guide said about availability, "That's the rub."

  After lunch, we were taken on a tour of the Museum of the City on the Old Arms Square by Eusabio Leal, official historian for the City of Havana.

  What is now the Museum of the City was the seat of government from 1792 until well into the 20th century.

  We did a quick change of clothes at our hotel, the Riviera, before hurrying to the private office of Alan Flanigan, charge of the U.S. Interests Section of the Swiss Embassy.

  If we had diplomatic relations with Cuba, Flanigan's title would be ambassador. To maintain diplomatic protocol, we have no embassy; the section is officially part of the Swiss Embassy.

  His press secretary, Gene Bigler, incidentally, is a former college roommate of Peter Morales, Oregon newspaper publisher, formerly of Rogue River and now Cottage Grove, whom we know well.

  We received a briefing at the section by someone we had to agree to call a "western diplomat in Havana".

Relationship Tense

  He called the relationship between the U.S. and Cuba as "tense", which is an understatement.

  He said, "There is no way out for Castro" unless he changes dramatically. But he said Castro appears to be a healthy 66-year-old and maintains the tightest security system in the hemisphere.

  He said three people can't assemble without a permit, no organization can be formed without approval and all media are state controlled.

  I asked, what would Cuba have to do to lift the blockade?

  The spokesman said two things were needed: hold fair elections and change its human rights position to allow dissent.

  He said Cuban officials are not corrupt in the venal sense. They don't live ostentatiously.

  The U.S. dollar is the second currency of Cuba. U.S. money is welcome everywhere we have gone.

  An elected legislature was recently formed but were told this is not much of a change. The real power in the country is Castro. Castro's brother, Raul, is Castro's designated successor. But our guide doesn't think it will work.

  Tomorrow the plan is to go to the Veradero Beach resort area east of Havana for a one night stay.

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