George McGovern leaving Cuba without seeing Castro
By PETER ORSI, Associated Press
11:31 a.m., July 4, 2011
HAVANA — Former Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern was
heading back to the United States on Monday without having seen Fidel
Castro, whom he calls an old friend, for the first time in nearly 17 years.
The 88-year-old former senator from South Dakota said officials told him
Castro, who temporarily stepped aside as president in 2006 and then
resigned permanently in 2008, has been "extremely busy" with official
matters and the presence of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who left
the island early Monday after several weeks recovering from cancer surgery.
McGovern told The Associated Press last week that while he had not
received an official invitation, people close to Castro assured him the
ailing 84-year-old former leader would be happy to meet with him. He
said he wanted to see Castro while the former Cuban president is still
alive, and arrived in Havana on Friday.
McGovern said that during his stay he met with officials including
Cuba's foreign minister, Bruno Rodriguez; toured a Havana medical clinic
that combines treatment, research and training; and dined at the popular
restaurant La Guarida, famous overseas as the filming location for the
Oscar-nominated 1993 movie "Strawberry and Chocolate."
"I would have come even if I'd known I wasn't going to see Fidel. I'm
interested in Cuba and the progress they're making," McGovern said.
"Obviously the star of the show when you come to Cuba is Fidel," he
added. "But I knew that he was ill. I knew that the Venezuelan president
was here and took a considerable amount of his time, so I'm not entirely
He told the AP he was leaving for the airport to catch his afternoon
flight to Florida, where he maintains a second home. He said he may
return another time, but had no immediate plans to do so.
McGovern first visited Cuba in 1975, when he and Castro began what he
described as a warm relationship.
"It might seem hard to believe, but I spent a total of 14 hours with
him, nearly all of one night and then a good part of two other days,"
McGovern said. "By the end of that experience I felt I really knew the
man and I felt that he knew me, and we've had a rather friendly
relationship ever since."
He has returned a half-dozen times since then, most recently in 1994.
McGovern, best known for losing the presidency to Richard Nixon in 1972,
has long opposed the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba and its ban on
American travel to the island, and favors normalization of diplomatic
McGovern said he did not speak with Cuban officials about the case of
Alan Gross, an American contractor who was working on a USAID-funded
democracy program when he was jailed in 2009. Gross was sentenced to 15
years this spring on charges of illegally importing communications
The Associated Press