From the archives: 500,000 Cubans Cheer Gorbachev’s Arrival

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

HAVANA -- Cuban President Fidel Castro turned out a quarter of the population of Havana on Sunday to greet Mikhail S. Gorbachev on the Soviet leader’s first visit to his largest Communist ally west of the crumbling Iron Curtain.

With a warm embrace at the foot of the exit ramp of the Soviet Il-62 jet that brought Gorbachev and his wife, Raisa, from Moscow, the two men immediately began an earnest conversation that was unheard by spectators who crowded against airport guard rails to see them.

There were no outward signs of the tension that reportedly has arisen between the two leaders since Castro scorned the idea of adopting Gorbachev’s reforms known as glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) to mend Cuba’s ailing economy.


Gorbachev’s official party included Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze, who had explained the Soviet leader’s “new thinking” to Castro on previous visits to Havana.

As the two Communist leaders shook hands with Cuban officials and foreign diplomats during the official welcoming ceremony at Jose Marti International Airport, they paused only once to chat animatedly and apparently cheerfully with John J. Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Havana. Taylor, who heads the American Interests Section of the Swiss Embassy in the absence of normal diplomatic relations between Washington and Havana, created a bit of a stir in early January when he walked out on a Castro speech as the Cuban leader launched into a tirade against the United States.

The reception that Castro laid on for the world’s leading Communist, elaborate even by Cuban standards, may have carried a dual message, according to diplomats here.

Acting with carefully planned military precision several hours before the Soviet leader’s arrival, the Castro government bused an estimated 500,000 of Havana’s 2 million people to prearranged positions along the 17-mile highway leading from the airport to the city to make Gorbachev’s motorcade the most heavily attended in Cuban history. Standing at a handrail in the rear of a gray Soviet Zil convertible limousine, the pair waved happily as they speeded along the motorcade route to the guest residence where the Gorbachevs will stay during their three-day visit.

Neither man spoke at the welcoming ceremony, but as Castro escorted the Gorbachevs into their guest quarters, the leaders good-naturedly answered questions from a few Cuban journalists. “All is clear in our friendship and in the souls and faces,” Gorbachev said in Russian of the crowds along the motorcade, adding that “now we are here only to converse, and we have something to talk about.”

Asked by a Cuban reporter for his feelings about Latin America, Gorbachev smiled and said that while he had never before visited Latin America, he had met many Latin American diplomats.

“I think Latin American countries are the giants of the future,” he said before turning to a smiling Raisa Gorbachev and entering the guest house.

Diplomats said the two leaders may not have been as cheerful as they appeared. They speculated that Castro intended the extraordinary public demonstration to underline his own popular political base rather than simply to flatter the visitor with an unprecedented welcome.

The Cuban leader has often used his popularity at home and among other Third World nations as defensive weapons against Soviet pressures to change Cuban policies. These policies are expected to be on the agenda of the extensive discussions the two leaders are scheduled to hold during Gorbachev’s visit.

‘Exchange Views, Experiences’

“We are going to discuss Fidel Castro’s performance, just as he is going to discuss our own performance,” Soviet spokesman Gennady I. Gerasimov told ABC-TV earlier Sunday in an interview from Havana. “We will exchange views and experiences.”

En route to Cuba, Gorbachev stopped for two hours in Ireland where he met with Prime Minister Charles Haughey at Shannon airport amid tight security. Afterward, the Associated Press reported, Haughey said he had proposed Dublin as the site of the next U.S.-Soviet summit meeting but got no immediate response from Gorbachev.

Gorbachev is scheduled to leave Havana on Wednesday. Then he will travel to London for talks Thursday with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. On Friday, he is scheduled to address financial and business leaders in London and have lunch with Queen Elizabeth II before returning to Moscow.

Castro’s current differences with Moscow surfaced last year when, in anticipation of Gorbachev’s then-scheduled December visit, the Cuban leader strongly implied that Gorbachev’s “new thinking” reforms could make problems for countries such as this one. He then scoffed at Soviet-American detente as a “peace of the rich” at the cost of poor Third World nations.

Protector of Ideological Purity

Later, in speeches marking the 30th anniversary of the Cuban revolution in January, he put himself forward as the protector of Communist ideological purity with the slogan, “Marxism-Leninism or death” to counter what he viewed as anti-socialist tendencies in Gorbachev’s reforms.

“We must never forget where we are,” said Castro, implying doubts about the depth of the Soviets’ commitment to Cuba. “Not in the Black Sea 90 miles from Odessa, but in the Caribbean, 90 miles from Miami.”

One noticeable difference between the Havana reception and others that Gorbachev and his wife have received in such cities as London, New York and Washington, was that Raisa Gorbachev appeared to have been moved quickly into the background by her official hostess, Vilma Espin, the unmarried Castro’s sister-in-law.

Wearing a lightweight, pale gray-blue open-necked dress, the Soviet First Lady was shown only fleetingly on the state-run television channels that broadcast the welcoming ceremony live. Espin is the wife of Castro’s brother, Raul, head of the Cuban armed forces.

Apart from Shevardnadze, the most senior of Gorbachev’s traveling companions was Alexander N. Yakovlev, a Politburo member who specializes in international affairs and Gorbachev’s closest personal friend.

Well-Rehearsed Crowd

Many of the spectators along the route of Sunday’s motorcade appeared to have been well-rehearsed for the occasion, even though the state-owned media have lately been playing down Soviet news. The media last week gave Gorbachev’s imminent arrival almost no advance publicity until Saturday, when the official Communist Party newspaper Granma published a banner headline declaring: “Gorbachev Will Arrive Tomorrow.”

“We didn’t need to be told,” said Frank Gonzales, 52, a spare-parts factory manager who was waiting in front of the fortress-like Soviet Embassy for the Gorbachev motorcade to pass. “We knew when he had to cancel his visit last December because of the earthquake in his own country that he would reschedule it. We’ve been waiting since December for him to come.”

Like a dozen people questioned at several points along the motorcade route, Gonzalez said that although he knew little about glasnost and perestroika , he preferred Castro’s often-repeated pledge that Cuba will solve its problems in its own way and not Gorbachev’s way.

‘Fidel’s Way’

“Glasnost is their way,” said Juan Aguilar, 46. “The development problems that we have are not the same ones the Soviet Union has, so we will solve them in Fidel’s way, not their way.”

“Gorbachev is a good leader and he is giving good things to his country,” said Estelle Cabrera, 48, a government worker. “But this is our country and our leader is Fidel.”

Castro has met Gorbachev twice before in Moscow and may meet him yet again before the year is out when the Soviet leader makes an expected visit to Latin America, according to diplomats here.