On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Held in high regard in Havana

Speaking in Spanish, he wanted  to know what newspaper I represented and
whether everything  was fine.

There was little time to bring up  my
request, through his Foreign  Ministry,
to secure an interview.

Although Castro is known to  speak fluent
English, according to  some books, he
made no attempt to  use the language. His
aides translated.

Turning to NST editor-at-large  Hardev
Kaur, who was standing  nearby, he
planted a kiss on her  cheeks.

“Please send my regards to your  prime
minister, he's a good man,''  he said, as
a crowd gathered to  watch.

There has been much political  chemistry
since Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad made his first  trip to the communist-ruled Caribbean

During the 1997 trip, Dr Mahathir was praised by Castro for  bringing 16 years of strong economic growth
to Malaysia.

He hailed Dr Mahathir for his  commitment
to bringing progress  to the South.

At that time, East Asia had just  being
hit by the currency speculators, 
bringing disastrous consequences to national economies and  wiping out decades of hard work  by the people.

During discussions then, the two  leaders
struck a chord as they exchanged views on globalisation and  how developing nations had to deal  with ever-increasing conditions  imposed by those in power and influence in
the international arena.

Since the 1997 visit, there have  been
follow-up visits by several  Cabinet
ministers and businessman.

MCA vice-president Datuk Ong  Ka Ting,
for example, was instrumental in bringing a women's volleyball team to Malaysia
following  a visit.

The Cuban side also opened an  embassy
prior to Dr Mahathir's  visit. Last week,
Foreign Minister  Datuk Syed Hamid Albar
announced that Malaysia would follow suit in Havana.

Cuban authorities certainly went  out of
their way during this summit to accord preferential treatment to Malaysian
delegates and  newsmen.

On arriving at the Jose Marti International Airport at midnight, we  found several hundred tourists lining up at
the immigration  counters. Instead of
opening a special counter for us, the Cuban officials insisted that we jump
queue   which led to protests,
understandably, from the tourists.

Much to the embarrassment of  the
Malaysians, the Cuban officials  turned a
deaf ear to the complaints.

Malaysia certainly made its  presence
felt. Dr Mahathir was  given the honour
to table a motion  to allow the G77
current chairman,  Nigeria, to express
the grouping's  aspirations to the G7
summit of developed nations.

Till recently, Cubans barely  knew
Malaysia as a country on the  other side
of the world.

The older generation still ask  whether
Malaysia had tigers roaming in our jungles 
images they  picked up from
watching a 60s film  Sandokan about a
swashbuckling  son of a sultan in

Among the younger Cubans,  however,
Malaysia is regarded as a  tiger, roaring
for developing nations at international forums.