The Summit of the Americas had just ended in Miami, and President Clinton and his counterparts from 33 other countries were heading triumphantly home. At a long table in the Palace of the Revolution in Havana, the man not invited, Fidel Castro, argued that Cuba's exclusion had been their loss, not his.
"If the summit of Miami was a great show, it would have been a better show if I had been there," he said, grinning through the beard. "We are the last rebels," he said of his communist government. "That was no meeting for rebels."Three weeks before the Cuban revolution is to celebrate its 36th anniversary, Castro, 68, was looking a little older and perhaps feeling a little more isolated than he was willing to let on. But if that worried him, he was making an accomplished effort not to let it show.
Yes, he acknowledged during a four-hour dinner conversation in Spanish with representatives of The New York Times, he had real reservations about the market-oriented reforms his government has undertaken to save an economy devastated by the collapse of the Soviet bloc. It pained him to sign some of those contracts for joint ventures with foreign companies.
But if he is not willing to turn Cuba into a Western-style democracy, he said, he recognizes that the world economy has changed.
"I am not a great fan of capitalism," he said. "But I am a realist."
To hear him tell it, Castro was more worried about Clinton.
How is it that American voters had shown so little mercy toward their president last month, he wanted to know early in the conversation; the young Democrat had seemed to have such an attractive social agenda as a candidate. Now, so quickly, the Republicans and their traditional antagonism toward Cuba seemed to be back, and strong.
Castro skipped past the fact that even as a candidate, Clinton ardently supported a tightening of the long-standing embargo against Cuba. Nor did he say much about the further sanctions that Clinton imposed in angry reprisal for the flood of more than 30,000 refugees whom Castro let go after political tensions rose here this summer.
"The Chinese wanted Bush to win," he recalled. "The Russians wanted Bush to win. The Mexicans wanted Bush to win." Cuba's political isolation, Castro suggested, goes so far as to include rooting for Clinton.
"We hope that he will be successful," he said.
What counsel Castro might have taken on this subject was probably present in the cavernous dining room, with its black marble floors and bright green ferns.
To his right sat his good friend, the Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who one night at the height of the refugee crisis had spent an evening in Martha's Vineyard talking politics, Faulkner and Cuba with Clinton.
Across the table at one end was Ricardo Alarcon, Cuba's lead negotiator in the talks that produced an agreement with the Clinton administration to stop the exodus. At the other, was Jose Antonio Arbesu, the Communist Party's chief expert on U.S. affairs and Alarcon's senior deputy in his talks.
Covering their bets, Castro and his aides also asked after the new speaker of the House. Where was it that Gingrich had gone to college? And what about the political future of the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Colin L. Powell?
Castro made no effort to disguise his real concern. He seemed troubled by the Republicans' sweeping victory in the Nov. 8 election, less out of any affinity for Clinton than from a fear that the end of the U.S. embargo might have been pushed even further into the future.
The refugees who fled Cuba in homemade rafts over the summer did not leave for political reasons, he insisted once again: they were driven out by the embargo and the economic turmoil it had wrought. And whatever pain the embargo had inflicted on Cubans and their government, he promised, it would never force the sort of political opening that has been its stated goal.
"We are not going to negotiate the normalization of our relations on the basis of concessions," he said. "The United States did not blockade South Africa. It does not blockade Saudi Arabia, where a few rich families own all of the wealth. The United States does not dictate political conditions to China. It does not dictate political conditions to Vietnam. Why does it have to dictate political conditions to us?"
Castro did not wait to be reminded of the great political mileage he has gotten out of the embargo over the years.
"Some people ask why they do not lift the embargo, because it serves us as a pretext," he said. "The day that American businessmen want to come and do business here, it would be a great headache for us. But we are ready to face that challenge.
"Will they corrupt us? Will we fall sick with a terrible infection of capitalism? We are willing to see.