John Armstrong

John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

Plenty of puff on the road to Havana

By JOHN ARMSTRONG

Phil Goff is contemplating the possibility of puffing on a finest Havana next week when he becomes New Zealand's first Foreign Minister to visit Cuba.

But only if diplomatic tact requires it.

Cigars make up nearly 90 per cent of Cuba's $1 million of exports to New Zealand and refusing one might be seen as stubbing out free trade.

A non-smoker, Mr Goff said he had the occasional cigar to be sociable. "I practised over Christmas, smoking a couple of Mike Moore's," he joked yesterday.

But he may not have to worry about refusing to indulge if he secures a meeting with Cuba's legendary leader, Fidel Castro. The 75-year-old President, who has been in power since 1959, has apparently given up cigars.

The meeting with Castro has yet to be confirmed, but Mr Goff already has appointments with one of Cuba's Vice-Presidents and the Foreign Minister.

"They say you never really know with Castro until the last moment ... Mike Moore was telling me the way it goes is that you get a last-minute call at 11 o'clock at night telling you the President will see you at midnight.

If the opportunity arises, I will be taking advantage of that."

Mr Goff's patience may have to stretch in other directions, given Castro's ability to talk and speechify for hours on end, most famously in marathon television addresses to his nation.

During his four-nation sweep through Latin America, Mr Goff will also visit El Salvador, Guatemala and Peru.

The 12-day trip is part of the Government's Latin America strategy to promote trade and political links, and builds on Prime Minister Helen Clark's recent visits to Mexico, Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina.

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