To judge by the tempo of cross-cultural festivities in Havana, deb season begins early in the Caribbean. In recent weeks Fidel Castro has played the congenial godpapa, hosting a parade of eager debutantes--North American politicians making their first visits to the "Pearl of the Antilles."
First came U.S. Congressmen Esteban Torres and Xavier Becerra. Their long evening with the Cuban dictator headlined a fact-finding mission full of embraces depicted across the front pages of the Miami Herald. Mr. Torres told the paper, regarding human-rights abuses perpetrated by Castro, that he "just didn't see it."
Then came Canada's foreign minister, Lloyd Axworthy, the highest-ranking Canadian to set foot in Cuba in more than 20 years. He and Mr. Castro dined on lobster cocktail and baby lamb chops at the festooned Palace of the Revolution and finished the evening over Cuban cigars. "We talked of many things, many things, but among friends," Mr. Castro said later. "Among friends you can talk about everything."
The merrymaking won't mix with Washington's fiery remarks a year ago about Cuba's top communist. Then, after Cuban MiGs shot down four American pilots over international waters, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms warned: "Whether Castro leaves Cuba in a vertical or horizontal position is up to him and the Cuban people. But he must--and will--leave Cuba."
Now that rhetoric and, more importantly, the tough legislative sanctions against Cuba that flowed from it, are being met with a concerted--and heavily financed--campaign from pro-Castro groups. If democracy in Cuba is far from flourishing, the controversy in the United States over how to achieve it is growing just fine.
The Dec. 5-10 trip by Mr. Torres and Mr. Becerra, both California Democrats and members of the House Hispanic Caucus, was sponsored and paid for by a private group, the Southwest Voter Research Institute (SVRI). Travel disclosure forms required by House rules and completed by the congressmen indicate the organization spent roughly $2,500 on their travel expenses. Its purpose, they state, was "to study the impact of Helms-Burton and the effects of the embargo on supplies of food and medicine." Helms-Burton is shorthand for the law enacted last year to penalize foreign governments and corporations doing business in Cuba. It extended U.S. government sanctions that have been in place since Mr. Castro's 1959 revolution.
SVRI is a tax-exempt organization based in San Antonio and Los Angeles. Funding for the organization has come from the Arca Foundation, a philanthropy run by heirs to the R.J. Reynolds tobacco empire. According to its annual report, Arca backs at least 15 groups or projects connected with Cuba. Nearly all profess anti-embargo, and, in most cases, pro-Castro positions. Those grants totaled half a million dollars in 1995.
SVRI received $25,000 from Arca last year. Alicia Torres, a long-time pro-Castro activist who coordinated the congressional trip and accompanied the lawmakers, received $30,000 from Arca for her Cuban-American Committee Research and Education Fund.
Other members of Congress are looking into reports that SVRI also received $130,000 in government funds originating with the U.S. Agency for International Development. If that is true, suggests a Jan. 17 letter from four House Republicans to USAID head Brian Atwood, then "federal funds could have been misused to pay for this trip."
The agency has not responded to the letter, but Republicans are using the inquiry to press a point. "How does visiting communists in Cuba, a country that the United States doesn't recognize, help SVRI register voters in America?" asks Rep. Henry Bonilla (R-Texas), who signed the letter. "Do they think that Cuba's communist system has anything to offer to our American democracy?"
Critics say Rep. Becerra betrayed the trip's serious intent by taking along his two young daughters. Critics also had a feast with Rep. Torres's account of his conversation with Mr. Castro:
"Are you torturing political prisoners?" he says he asked.
"No, I don't torture political prisoners," was Mr. Castro's reply.
Miami's two Cuban-American lawmakers, Republicans Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Lincoln Diaz-Balart, were angered enough by the trip to resign from the Hispanic Caucus, leaving the ad hoc group without any Republican dues-paying members. They faulted Rep. Becerra for bad form as well, since the trip came on the eve of a vote to elect him caucus chairman.
"I don't think there's ever been a chairman who has agreed with me on Cuba policy," said Rep. Ros-Lehtinen. "But there's never been a chairman who went on a trip like this as he campaigned for my vote."
Canada, meanwhile, is pursuing its own version of "constructive engagement." Canadian foreign minister Axworthy came away from his trip with cooperative agreements with Mr. Castro on everything from a judges' exchange program to drug interdiction and international terrorism. As Cuba's biggest trade partner, Canada is fuming over the Helms-Burton rules, which block some of its corporate leaders from entering the United States and could lead to lawsuits against them later this year. The country is pressing its complaints in the World Trade Organization and even encouraged their own "snowbirds" to bypass Florida vacations this winter as a statement of protest.
Even as Canada's foreign minister was landing in Havana, Cuban police detained three dissidents, journalists Tania Quintero and Juan Antonio Sanchez, and economist Marta Beatriz Roque.
Interrogations continue. Missionary Russell Black said he was questioned and warned by police for choosing to stay in the countryside with pastors, where food and other necessities like soap are being rationed and he has been begged to give up a pair of underwear. Authorities want foreigners to stay in city hotels, where cable channels and the best food are put forth as if the party never stopped.