Cherry Blossoms

Attracting foreign tourism was at that time – mid and late nineties – one of the few possibilities to earn much needed hard currency. Knowing that, Washington reinforced its sanctions and threats against foreign companies investing in Cuba or having any transaction with the island. Coincidentally the so-called Cuban American National Foundation (CANF) and other anti-Cuba terrorist groups openly declared such visitors “enemies” and justified violent attacks against them.

As tourists were arriving to the island in larger numbers a series of bombs exploded and others were found at our hotels and beach resorts in 1997 and 1998.

From April to September 1997 such attacks had the city of Havana as its main target. As a result, four people were wounded on July 12 when bombs exploded at the Nacional and Capri Hotels. On September 4 explosions occurred almost simultaneously in the Copacabana, Chateau and Triton Hotels and at a Havana restaurant. In the Copacabana, Fabio di Celmo, a 22-year-old Italian tourist was killed.

On August 11, 1997 in the middle of that terrorist campaign CANF made  public a statement describing it as “incidents of internal rebellion which have been taking place in Cuba over the last few weeks” and stating that “the Cuban American National Foundation supports these without hesitation or reservations.”

These acts were not “internal” much less a “rebellion”. Some Central-American mercenaries arrested in Havana had admitted that they were acting under instructions of Luis Posada Carriles, a fugitive criminal who had escaped from trial for masterminding in 1976 the first midair destruction of a civil airplane ever. Posada now enjoys total impunity in Miami. On July 12, 1998 in a front-page interview with the New York Times, Posada Carriles admitted full responsibility for the new terrorist attacks, recognized that he was financed by CANF and cynically referred to Fabio di Celmo as a person “at the wrong place at the wrong time” whose death didn’t disturb him. Posada said he was able to “sleep like a baby”. He repeated similar words in front of a TV camera on a programme broadcasted through the United States.

Between March and April 1998, Cuba was approached several times by the State Department and their representatives in Havana to share with us some sensitive information they had gotten, the gravest of all related to possible attacks on civilian airplanes flying to the island. We spent hours jointly examining intelligence that the Americans considered so credible that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued a special warning to air companies.

In view of those positive exchanges Fidel took a very important initiative. Gabriel García Márquez, a well recognized friend of Cuba and of the leader of its Revolution, was travelling soon to attend a conference at Princeton and expected to meet President Clinton, a reader and admirer, like many millions, of the Nobel Laureate in Literature.

On April 18, Fidel personally drafted a message to Clinton and gave it to the Colombian writer who arrived to the US Capital on May 1st. García Márquez waited for several days “in my impersonal room at the Washington hotel where I spent up to 10 hours a day writing. However, even if I refused to admit it, the true reason for my confinement was the custody of the message lying in the safety box … I devoted myself to its custody while I continued to write, to eat my meals and to receive my visits in the hotel room.”

Unable to receive Gabo personally, President Clinton arranged for some of his closest associates to meet him at the White House on May 6. According to Gabo’s report Fidel’s message was taken very seriously.

One after the other, they read it with keen interest. Richard Clarke, a senior official at National Security Council, said “that they would take immediate steps for a joint US-Cuba plan on terrorism.” James Dobbins, also a senior at NSC, “concluded that they would communicate with their embassy (sic) in Cuba to implement the project.” Mack McLarty “expressed his appreciation for the great importance of the message, worthy of the full attention of his Government, of which they would urgently take care.”

In closing the White House meeting McLarty said, “Your mission was in fact of utmost importance, and you have discharged it very well.”

Both Fidel’s message and García Márquez’s entire and fascinating description of his mission were published, unedited, by Fidel Castro in a special public address on May 20, 2005 (“A Different Behaviour”,

Having concluded such a delicate task, Gabo was happy, almost completely happy:

“My only frustration on the way back to the hotel was not having discovered and enjoyed till then the miracle of the cherries in blossom during that superb spring season.

I barely had time to pack my bags and catch the flight at five that afternoon. The plane that had brought me from Mexico fourteen days earlier had had to return to base with a broken turbine and we waited for four hours at the airport till there was another available flight. The one I took back to Mexico, after the meeting at the White House, was delayed in Washington for an hour and a half while they repaired the radar with the passengers on board.

Before landing in Mexico, five hours later, the plane had to hover over the city for almost two hours due to an out of service runway. Ever since I began flying fifty two years ago, I never had gone through anything like this. But then, it couldn’t be any other way, for a peaceful adventure that will forever hold a privileged place in my memories.”

RICARDO ALARCÓN de QUESADA is president of the Cuban National Assembly.


Ricardo Alarcón de Quesada has served as Cuba’s UN ambassador, Foreign Minister and president of the National Assembly.