All summer long the drums had rolled. "Go Carefree Go Cuba," said the rollicking ads in the American newspapers. "Cuba is gayer, more friendly, more exciting than ever. Cuba's new democracy-in-action offers you new freedom, new fun and the biggest welcome in the whole Caribbean!"
At the bottom of the ads came the clincher. The Cuban Tourist Office announced that ASTA—the American Society of Travel Agents—had chosen Havana for its 29th annual world congress in October.
The much-vaunted ASTA convention was a fat legacy that Cuba's revolutionary government had inherited from the Batista regime. ASTA is the single largest travel association in the world. Its membership is not limited to American and Canadian travel agents, but includes foreign agencies as well, not to mention an allied roster of virtually all the world's major transportation companies, hotel chains, and any island, government or resort from Tahiti to Tel Aviv interested in attracting the traveler. ASTA's presence, a much-sought-after plum, has been known to open tourist floodgates, bolster sagging economies and start new travel trends.
For Fidel Castro, whose big tourist plant had been an empty, unused shell since he took over on New Year's Day, the ASTA convention was the chance of a regime's lifetime, and he went all-out to take advantage of it. When the first ASTA delegates arrived on Saturday afternoon before the big convention week began, Havana's brand-new airport, rushed to completion, was ready. It was gay with flags, bunting and welcome signs. A hundred pairs of official eyes, including those of two short, scraggly soldiers only lately out of the hills sporting berets, fatigues and carbines, watched the first delegates come down the steps from the airplane.
ON THE FENCE
ASTA bags and ASTA delegates were rushed through customs without any examination at all. Flags and welcome signs were everywhere, not excluding a two-color neon diadem of welcome on the dome of the capitol and a large cutout sign wired to the fence of the Hospital de Dementes.
Fidel himself showed up on Monday morning at the Blanquita Theater to start the ASTA convention rolling. As if to signalize the peaceful nature of the occasion, he took off his ever-present gun belt and laid it aside. Then, with Carlos Almoina, the 28-year-old executive director of tourism, at his elbow, he delivered a disarming, off-the-cuff 25-minute talk in halting English. He welcomed the travel agents. He told them that Cuba was their island and that tourism was the salvation of it. He offered the sunny climate, the lovely landscapes, the friendliness of his people and a whopping promotion campaign to bring the tourists back. He got an ovation, and the editors of the convention's daily newspaper went back to the press room to write the headline, CASTRO WOWS DELEGATES, that was to appear the next morning.
More wowing was in store. That evening, in dark uniform and tie, Castro showed up again at a reception given on the grounds of the capitol building by President Osvaldo Dorticós. This time he was mobbed by the travel agents who, playing bobbysoxers to his Elvis, fought and pushed to have their pictures taken alongside him, shoving hundreds of convention badges at him to autograph. ASTA's president, Max Allen, tried to stop the near riot, but Castro insisted that he was pleased to sign the badges of all comers.
Even this was not the last that Fidel had to give to the convention. He disappeared into the night, but members of the press meanwhile had been notified that at 10:30 p.m. he would personally escort them through a small exposition—set up across the street from the Hilton—showing what life was like in the new Cuba. The appointed hour found a record turnout of 150 reporters, photographers, publicity people and the ASTA president waiting expectantly under a hot, brightly lighted, translucent canopy for the Premier to reappear.
We waited. After 40 minutes everybody agreed that Castro was undoubtedly held up by something important. A member of the newly organized tourist authority rose to speak for him. In eloquent terms he proceeded to explain the tremendous plan (already neatly explained in ornate press kits handed to each reporter) which would transform Cuba from a jazzy one-city tourist attraction to a 700-mile-long isle of wholesome vacation happiness.