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    Castro surprises Pensacola group

    ©Associated Press
    September 11, 2002

    PENSACOLA -- Cuban President Fidel Castro invited Pensacola officials visiting his country to an unexpected six-hour lunch. They were on a trade mission to drum up business for the city's port.

    Castro was "cordial and attentive" and particularly interested in the Florida Panhandle's agriculture, asking questions about crops, soil and rainfall, said state Rep. Jerry Maygarden, R-Pensacola.

    Maygarden, a former mayor, was part of the delegation last week trying to revive trade ties between Cuba and Pensacola that were broken after the communist revolution Castro led in the late 1950s. The lunch Saturday capped a four-day visit.

    "Overall, it was one of those really rare moments that I wouldn't ever want to miss," Maygarden said. "Obviously, we would have a lot of political differences, but as far as world figures go, he's been on that stage a long time."

    The United States partly lifted its 1960 trade embargo on Cuba last year after Hurricane Michelle devastated the island nation. That opened the way for shipments of food, medical supplies and other humanitarian goods.

    Port director Chuck Porter said Pensacola can offer Cuba attractive shipping prices because it is only about 45 minutes from deep water. He said it can take ships longer to reach deep water from some other U.S. ports on the Gulf Coast.

    The Pensacola group met with about 15 Cuban agencies and plans to keep in regular contact. Porter also will lead a group of port officials to a trade show in Havana later this month. It is the first sanctioned in Cuba by the U.S. Commerce Department since the embargo began.

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