HAVANA — Former Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern was heading back to the United States on Monday without having seen Fidel Castro, whom he calls an old friend, for the first time in nearly 17 years.
The 88-year-old former senator from South Dakota said officials told him Castro, who temporarily stepped aside as president in 2006 and then resigned permanently in 2008, has been "extremely busy" with official matters and the presence of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who left the island early Monday after several weeks recovering from cancer surgery.
McGovern told The Associated Press last week that while he had not received an official invitation, people close to Castro assured him the ailing 84-year-old former leader would be happy to meet with him. He said he wanted to see Castro while the former Cuban president is still alive, and arrived in Havana on Friday.
McGovern said that during his stay he met with officials including Cuba's foreign minister, Bruno Rodriguez; toured a Havana medical clinic that combines treatment, research and training; and dined at the popular restaurant La Guarida, famous overseas as the filming location for the Oscar-nominated 1993 movie "Strawberry and Chocolate."
"I would have come even if I'd known I wasn't going to see Fidel. I'm interested in Cuba and the progress they're making," McGovern said.
"Obviously the star of the show when you come to Cuba is Fidel," he added. "But I knew that he was ill. I knew that the Venezuelan president was here and took a considerable amount of his time, so I'm not entirely surprised."
He told the AP he was leaving for the airport to catch his afternoon flight to Florida, where he maintains a second home. He said he may return another time, but had no immediate plans to do so.
McGovern first visited Cuba in 1975, when he and Castro began what he described as a warm relationship.
"It might seem hard to believe, but I spent a total of 14 hours with him, nearly all of one night and then a good part of two other days," McGovern said. "By the end of that experience I felt I really knew the man and I felt that he knew me, and we've had a rather friendly relationship ever since."
He has returned a half-dozen times since then, most recently in 1994.
McGovern, best known for losing the presidency to Richard Nixon in 1972, has long opposed the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba and its ban on American travel to the island, and favors normalization of diplomatic relations.
McGovern said he did not speak with Cuban officials about the case of Alan Gross, an American contractor who was working on a USAID-funded democracy program when he was jailed in 2009. Gross was sentenced to 15 years this spring on charges of illegally importing communications equipment.
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