HAVANA - In a deft stroke of public relations, President Fidel Castro chose Cuban-American journalists as the key conduit for his conciliatory message this week to Cubans living abroad.
The blend of message and messengers now appears as obvious as rum and coke, but it was as unusual as Havana cigars in Southwest Miami.
Ten Cuban-born reporters and cameramen, including seven from Miami, came from the United States at Cuba's invitation for a Castro press conference Wednesday night. It was the largest group of Cuban-American journalists permitted to enter this country since hostility began to wane two years ago.
The purpose of Castro's press conference was to suggest a dialogue with the "Cuban community abroad," with further relaxation of travel restrictions as a prime topic on the agenda.
He said his government is willing to discuss possible emigration for present and former political prisoners in Cuba, visiting permission for exiles and reunification of families divided by exile.
"The press conference was aimed at the Cuban community, so it was logical for them to want Cuban journalists here," said Manuel de Dios of the New York newspaper La Prensa. De Dios, 35, was back in Cuba for the first time since leaving at age 18.
At the press conference itself, the Cuban-Americans appeared relaxed and uninhibited, asking numerous questions about the sensitive subject of political prisoners.
"My preconceived idea (of Castro) was so accurate that I was not awed nor impressed by the personality," said one.
For de Dios and others, the working trip has provided them a chance to visit their own relatives.
Nirso Pimentel, a reporter from Miami's Spanish-language Channel 23, was back for the first time since 1960. Pimentel is now 39.
He went to see old friends who now are fathers, some grandfathers. He also visited aunts, uncles, and cousins.
"I got very emotional," he said. "There was a lot of kissing and crying...
"For the first time I met all of my wife's relatives."
In addition to recording the Wednesday press conference, Pimentel made documentary films in the Havana area. One film, showing famous buildings, plazas, stores, and other scenes that exiles may remember, will be shown on Channel 23's "Esta Noche" program some future Saturday night.
Five-minute segments of Castro's press conference will be shown daily next week at 2 and 5:30 p.m. Interviews in schools, recreation areas, factories, and the airport will be broadcast later at the same times.
Pimentel said Cuban authorities placed no restriction on his activities. "They arranged everything I asked for; we had all kinds of facilities," he said.
Officials arranged interviews for Pimentel and at least two other Cuban American journalists with recently released political prisoners Tony Cuesta and Eugenio Záldivar.
Cuesta, a participant in numerous anti-Castro raids in the early 1960s, and Záldivar were captured in May 1966, when their boat was sunk by a Cuban patrol boat after landing "infiltrators" on the island. They are on an initial list of 48 present and former political prisoners whom Castro has said will be allowed to leave for the United States.
Some of the visiting journalists said that their requests for interviews with political prisoners or high officials were not granted.
The journalists stayed in Havana's Hotel Riviera, a relic of 1950s elegance. A press room was set up for them on the fourth floor with dozens of typewriters, four direct telephone lines to the overseas switchboard, three telexes and a Steinway baby grand piano.
A team of government press officials and officers of the Cuban journalists union lavished attention on the visiting newsmen.
"The only thing we have tried to do is make things easy," said Heriberto Fernández, chief of the Foreign Ministry press section.
Fernández himself flew to Jamaica the day before the press conference to bring some of the visiting journalists back on a special flight of Cubana de Aviacion. The journalists were treated to caviar, rum and cigars along with copies of Cuba's two main daily newspapers, Granma and Juventud Rebelde.
Some of the Cuban-Americans from Miami privately expressed concern that they might be threatened when they return by anti-Castro exiles who oppose any dealings with the Communist government.
However, Dolores Prida, a New York-based reporter for the Hispanic-American feature magazine Nuestro said she wasn't worried.
"New York is not like Miami," she said.
Prida, 35, left Cuba when she was 17. She returned for the first time last December on another reporting trip.
"I received some insulting letters saying I had been brainwashed, even though my article was very objective," she said.
Pimentel of Channel 23 speculated that Castro is more interested in launching a trial balloon through the Cuban-American journalists than in trying to indoctrinate them.
He said that the Cuban government apparently wants to test the reactions of exiles to the "idea of making back and forth trips between Cuba and the United States."
Some opposition can be expected, Pimentel said, but "there will be a lot of people who will like it."
Others among the Cuban-Americans participating in the press conference were Ana Azcuy of Miami's Channel 4; Guillermo Urbizu of Channel 10 with two Cuban-American cameramen; Guillermo Martínez, city editor of El Herald; Herald photographer José Azel, and Lourdes Casals of Areito, a left-leaning Cuban-American magazine published in New York.