Castro turns on the charm

AFTER wheeling out his senior ministers last week to encourage visiting foreign businessmen to invest in Cuba, Fidel Castro invited the visitors round for cocktails. He told them he admired Sweden and Switzerland as coming closest to a decent blend of capitalism and socialism.

But the comandante gave no inkling that his newly vaunted policy of apertura (opening up) would spill from business towards such old Swedish and Swiss traditions as allowing opposition parties or freedom of speech.

As always, the Cuban leader, in his customary olive uniform, charmed the pants off his guests. The businessmen listened and gaped in awe as the great man held forth for more than two hours.

Did he expect the 30-year- old US blockade to be lifted during his lifetime, one visitor asked. 'God willing,' came the reply. 'You believe in God then, comandante?' the questioner ventured. 'A figure of speech,' he replied. 'I'm not a believer but I respect the views of others.'

Mr Castro, perhaps because he is not on a diet restricted by a ration book, is one of few Cubans managing to retain a sense of humour. Cuban television the other night beamed a recent appearance in which he came across almost as a stand-up comedian. Filmed at a party thrown by pro-Castro Cubans in Cartagena, Colombia, after the recent Ibero- American summit, Mr Castro had his audience in stitches and burst into laughter himself on several occasions.

'All those flashbulbs going off in my face at the summit,' he said. 'I suppose that's the price of fame. And who do I owe my fame to? The yanquis.'

Commenting on worldwide press coverage when he appeared at the summit for the first time not in uniform but in a guayabera, an embroidered tropical shirt, he explained: 'They asked me to come casual, in shirtsleeves. But I've always stuck to my old clothes. That way I don't have to change with the fashions. But I don't sleep in my uniform. I don't swim in it. I wanted to show them I wasn't afraid to wear a guayabera. Then I thought, 'Will it go with my beard?' '