11/10/1980 at 01:00 AM EST
In Washington jargon, a fishing expedition is the aimless questioning of a congressional committee witness. Like his colleagues, Sen. Lowell Weicker (of Watergate investigation fame) has been accused of the parliamentary offence from time to time. Not long ago Weicker could happily plead guilty, but with a difference. The expedition was to Cuba, the fish were real, and the man answering questions was Premier Fidel Castro. In the wake of Castro's welcome decision to release U.S. prisoners in Cuban jails, Weicker, the ranking Republican on the subcommittee that oversees the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, went to Havana to talk about fishing rights and other mutual concerns.
At the end of their three-hour meeting in Havana, the Cuban leader decided to join the Connecticut senator on a skin-diving expedition. A so-so swimmer with one crash course in scuba equipment, Weicker passed up spearfishing with Castro, citing sportsmanship ("In those waters the fish come right up to your nose"). But he came back with the pictures on these pages (taken by him and his aide Bob Wicklund) and a fresh, mostly favorable view of Castro, his country and the benefits of more cordial relations.
"It was a common love of the sea that got us out there," says Weicker, 49. "It had nothing to do with sticking points between our nations." Indeed, their lunch—Castro's catch washed down with rum (Cuban) and white wine (French)—was unmarred by talk of Cuban military adventurism or allegations of torture at the Isle of Pines prison just over the bow of the official yacht. Weicker sampled lobster a la Fidel—dissected by Castro's personal surgeon and eaten raw with salt and lime juice—and invited his host's reminiscences of the revolution.
The eight-and-a-half-hour encounter left the senator with the impression of "a man of enormous intellect and idealism. Castro's been known to snow people, but he didn't snow me," Weicker says. "We flew all over the place and I saw what he's done with my own eyes. They deliver a quality of life to those people they've never known before. By Caribbean and South American standards, it's Park Avenue. I want to know why the U.S. isn't there. We can gain the affection of the Cuban people by working side by side."
To that end, Weicker invited Castro to send scientists to work at the NOAA's research lab in St. Croix and is now urging the agency to exchange scientific publications with the Cubans. "Somebody who's going to play a role in the history of this hemisphere is somebody we should be talking to," he reasons. "Castro is there to stay."