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Seeing red over ketchup for Castro

Who said the Cold War is over? Across the 90-mile stretch of ocean between Florida and Cuba, the waves of war are icier than ever.

Take the case of Javier Ferreiro, 45, a Spanish businessman who lives in the Cuban capital, Havana. Arraigned in Miami on Friday, he faces 20 years in a Florida jail and fines of up to pounds 600,000 for "trading with the enemy". His crime was that he allegedly shipped tomato ketchup, disposable nappies and sanitary towels to Fidel Castro's dreaded Communist regime.

Florida prosecutors are not saying Mr Castro's forces might squirt the ketchup into the faces of American troops during a Cuban invasion of Key West. They are merely following the letter of the federal Trading With The Enemy Act and the embargo imposed on the island soon after Mr Castro's ragtag revolutionaries ousted Fulgencio Batista in 1959.

Until the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba could get most goods from there. Now, nappies and sanitary towels are desperately needed and ketchup is a coveted addition to the ration books still used by Cubans.

Mr Ferreiro was allegedly caught "red-handed" last week, buying up ketchup from a supermarket on the island of Key Biscayne, across a causeway from Miami. Prosecutors say his shipping documents suggested the goods were headed for the Dominican Republic but that they ended up in Cuba.

To support one of the world's most exemplary public health care programmes, Cuba needs medicine. Thanks to the embargo, pharmacists' shelves are bare. Perhaps that is why a wealthy 71-year-old American philanthropist, Millard Harmon, flew pounds 32,000 worth of penicillin and asthma inhalers on his private plane to help Cuban children last month. He was also allegedly "trading with the enemy": his Beechcraft plane was confiscated when he arrived back in Albany, New York, and he could face jail.

"Actually, the stuff was meant for the Cayman Islands but I had engine trouble and had to land in Havana. The good Lord does strange things to me," Mr Harmon insisted.

If the embargo arguably made sense after the 1962 Cuban missile crisis and during the long presence of Soviet troops, weaponry and advisers, the US now stands virtually alone in its old Cold War policy of trying to starve Mr Castro out.

There has been more bark than bite to the so-called Helms-Burton law, which President Clinton signed last year, making it harder for foreign firms to deal with Cuba, but it has hurt US relations with trading partners, such as Canada, Mexico and the European Union.

Suspending parts of the bill, Mr Clinton barely concealed the fact that approving it was a pre-election move to win the votes of anti-Castro Cuban-Americans. That influence was clear again the other day, when bomb threats from Cuban exiles forced a Miami radio station to stop playing salsa songs from popular Cuban bands such as Los Van Van and Manolin, the so-called "Doctor of Salsa". A moderate Cuban-American civil rights group compared the threats from anti-Castro Cubans with the Spanish Inquisition.

Another embargo-breaker, Ivan Rojas, 58, a Cuban- American, was sentenced to two years' jail last week by a federal judge in Miami. Despite the fact that his shipment was morelethal than ketchup or diapers - the US Coastguard found him on a lobster boat loaded down with machine guns and explosives bound for Cuban dissidents on the island - the judge set him free, pending appeal.