By Susan Falvella Garraty and Ray O’Hanlon
WASHINGTON D.C. — Sinn FTin leader Gerry Adams’s enthusiastic embrace of Cuban leader Fidel Castro earned Washington’s disappointment this week.
On his controversial visit to Cuba, Adams met the island’s dictator at a school opening. “He honors us with his visit to our country,” Castro said after meeting Adams.
The Sinn Fein leader is in Cuba to thank Castro for support given to the 1981 republican hunger strikers. Adams also placed a wreath at a monument to Cuban independence leader Jose Marti.
Adams traveled to Cuba on Sunday, Dec. 16, and is due to leave on Thursday, Dec. 20. Before Adams’s departure, Sinn Fein issued a short press release that gave no hint of the controversy it had aroused in some quarters in the U.S.
Adams would be accompanied on the trip by North Belfast MLA Gerry Kelly and the director of Sinn FTin’s International Department, Joan O’Connor, the statement said.
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“In addition to unveiling the 1981 monument, the delegation will meet with Cuban President Fidel Castro and representatives of the Cuban government. They will also visit the Juan Manuel Marquez Pediatric Hospital and visit the Latin-American School of Medical Sciences,” the statement added.
While in Cuba, Adams called on the United States to end its boycott of Cuba and also urged that the three Irishmen being held in Bogota, Colombia, on charges of assisting Marxist rebels, be released.
Neither of those requests sits well with the Bush administration and some members of Congress, although the visit did coincide with the first U.S. food shipment to Cuba since 1963.
“Let’s just say this is not what we had hoped for,” said one U.S. State Department of the Adams visit.
“When politicians from Western democracies go to Cuba, they generally take the opportunity to meet with opposition leaders or human rights activists opposed to oppressive governments. That didn’t happen with Mr. Adams,” the official said.
After meeting one of the Castro regime’s top officials, Jose Ramon Balaguer, Adams said: “The world has a lot to learn from the successes of Cuba, particularly in defeating illiteracy and in the provision of health and of social equity.”
A White House official acknowledged that Adams is certainly not the first politician to go to Cuba, but that his remarks “dims” the Bush White House’s view of the Northern Ireland party leader.
Adams, anticipating the displeasure his trip might incur, appealed directly to U.S. politicians for understanding.
“Having been in America as recently as November, there will be some people clearly who support the peace process, who support Sinn Fein, who support the Irish cause, who will not agree with me going to Cuba, but I think they will accept and understand it,” Adams told reporters at a Paris stopover on his way to Havana.
However, the appeal came against the backdrop of the State Department already warning that the Adams visit would be especially troubling if the three men being held in Colombia were found to have been sent to South America by the IRA.
The House International Relations Committee has carried out a preliminary investigation into the Colombia arrests and the allegations of an IRA connection and decided last month to hold full hearings into the matter in the early spring.
Several congressional representatives with ties to the anti-Castro Cuban exile community in Miami are also now eager to examine Sinn Fein’s connections with Havana.
One of the three men being held in Colombia, Niall Connolly, was Sinn Fein’s representative to Cuba. Adams and other Sinn Fein leaders originally denied knowledge of Connolly’s Cuban connection but later stated that they had never been informed of his appointment.
Sinn Fein is campaigning in Ireland to have the men released before trial. Irish government officials say they have no reason to believe the men will be released before a trial on possession of false passports and allegedly assisting the FARC rebels.