Cuban President Fidel Castro has embarked on an unprecedented publicity campaign to present his side of the Shaba story to the American public in face of continuing charges by the Carter's Administration about Cuba's role.
Encouraged by apparent differences of opinion within the U.S. administration, Castro in recent days has matched President Carter nearly statement for statement and press conference for press conference to deny vehemently the U.S. charges that the Angola-based Cubans aided Katangese rebels who invaded Zaire's Shaba province last month.
After meeting with U.S. congressmen and newspaper reporters brought here last week in a hastly arranged visit once Castro decided to go public, the war of words has escalated with the arrival in Havana of crews from the three major U.S. television networks.
The Cuban government waived the usual lengthy visa procedures for the networks groups, and even allowed their chartered jetliners to land without normal clearence.
Castro has become such a hot item with the U.S. media that an intense competitions has developed. CBS' offer Thursday of a live telephone interview between Castro and Walter Cronkite in New York was tooped by the arrival of ABC's Barbara Walters in Havana the next day.But Castro later decided that all three networks would have a joint interview with him Friday. Newspaper reporters were barred, but it was unclear whether this was ordered by the Cuban leader or requested by the networks.
While Castro has made himself available to the American public through the U.S. news media, Cubans themselves has had little contact with Castro over the past several weeks.
Granma, the official Communist Party newspaper, which is the main source of news for most Cubans, has limited itself throughout the present controversy largely to denouncing Carter's national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and to reprinting U.S. congressional statements taking issue with Carter.
Last weekend's issue of Granma, for example, contained a lengthy diatribe against the Chinese, paired with a long article describing Brzezinski's background and calling him a "troglodyte-turned-adviser."
Although many Cubans regularly listened to Voice of America news broadcasts, and can tune into commercial Miami stations, most seem to show little concern with the situation and view it as a mere continuation of 20 years of conflict with the United States. Since many believe that the United States has lied about Cuba for decades, they see no reason to believe Carter now.
Carter has not made public the documentation of his charges, but he has had the advantage of a constant news media forum the Castro clearly wants to share, matching his own considerable image of personal sincerity against that of Carter.
Last week the White House said that the administration was "willing to place the records of verocity [of Carter and Castro] side by side and let the American poeple decide for themselves." The statement followed Castro's lenghty interview with congressmen and three American reporters. Res. Stephen Solarz (D.N.Y.) and Anthony Beilenson (D-Calif.), said after talking to Castro that they now had doubts about the U.S. version of Cuban involvement in the Shaba rebellion.
Since his first public statements last week, Castro has not altered his story. The Cuban government, he has said, made a political decision in 1976 to sever all relations with the Katangese, whom Cuba considers unreliable and non-revolutionary. Castro maintains that policy has not varied and that Cuba's 20,000 troops in Angola have strict orders to avoid all contact, if possible, and to report all accidental encounters with the Katangese immediately.
He has repeated several times that he expects to be vindicated by history and that he hopes Carter will investigate the matter fully and eventually apologize.
Although each president has stopped short of publicly labelling the other a liar, aides of each privately have said as much, and no ends is in sight to the battle as the U.S. news media continues to travel back and forth between countries with each new charge.
The sudden influx of U.S. journalists here has caused headaches for the Cuban information ministry. The ministry normally likes to assigned an official to each visitor, but officials and government interpreters are now at premium.
Cubans officials appear to take a certain satisfaction in the frustrations of journalists attempting to communicate with their U.S. offices by way of Cuba's antiquated telephone system. Noting the desperation of reporters on deadline struggling to get a long distance line fron the Palace of the Revolution last week, Castro said that the poor communications were not the fault of Cuba but rather of the U.S. economic blockade.
In force for more then 15 years, the blockade has prevented new cables being laid between the countries and replacement of aging U.S. equipment brought here two decades ago or more.
Television reporters, who complained that satellite hook-ups travel via sputnik and Moscow rather than by faster Western satellites, received a similar answer.
Even the U.S. interests section opened here last year within the Swiss embassy has regular communications problems, with cables normally arriving a day late.
Carter's comment in his press conference Wednesday that the 10-man section consisted of "a representative" whose job was nothing more than providing "communications" between the two countries puzzled some U.S. diplomats here. They noted that if communications were their only job here, they were bound to do it poorly.