At the end of his first day in Richmond, the mayor of the Contra Costa
town's sister city in Cuba settled onto the well-worn couch of a local
librarian's tiny bungalow, as the pungent aroma of a homemade Thai curry
wafted from the kitchen.
It was the first time Francisco Hernandez Barcelo had been in the United
States since he was a teenage meatpacker in the Bronx in the 1950s.
And it is the first time a Cuban mayor has made an official visit to an
American city since the United States imposed an embargo on Cuba 39 years ago
in an effort to force democratic and free-market reforms on the island's
"This is a small, historical step," said the mayor of Regla, referring to
his weeklong trip to the Bay Area. "It could be the beginning of a better
relationship for our two countries. At any rate, it's being driven by warmth
and friendship, and that has a multiplier effect."
Indeed, Barcelo and Raul Genaro Gil Sanchez, Regla's director of mental
health, were surrounded by new friends. The city's harbormaster showed up for
dinner, along with an epidemiologist from the county health department. The
librarian poured wine as her arborist husband put the finishing touches on the
curry and threw together a salad with avocados fresh off his tree.
All belong to the Richmond-Regla Friendship Committee -- which organized
the Cubans' visit -- and hope their efforts at "people-to-people" diplomacy
will help normalize relations between the United States and Cuba.
"You might look to a big city to make big (policy) changes, but I think
Richmond and Regla have the heart and the will to do it," said Ruth Rodriguez,
a member of the committee.
"Regla is like the forgotten little city near Havana, the same way we feel
overlooked beside San Francisco and Oakland," she said.
Richmond and Regla have much in common: both are small industrial cities
with ports, shipyards and oil refineries on the edge of major urban centers.
Regla, population 43,000, is a ferry ride across Havana Bay from Cuba's
capital city. Like Richmond, population 99,200, Regla has a large black
community -- it is known as a center of Afro-Cuban music and dance. It's also
the birthplace of former Oakland A's slugger Jose Canseco.
Sister-city relationships between the United States and Cuba are a
relatively recent phenomenon. The first, created in 1993, linked Mobile and
Havana. Since then, six others have formed.
The Richmond-Regla relationship was formalized in September 1999. Oakland
has since found a sister city in Santiago de Cuba.
Sister Cities International in Washington, D.C., did not recognize sister-
city links with any nation with which the United States did not have
diplomatic relations until this year, when the group expanded its membership
to include Cuba.
Critics of Cuban leader Fidel Castro are skeptical of such contacts, saying
Cuba under Castro is repressive and undemocratic.
But Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez, "supports the exchange of friendship
and ideas between the two cities," said his district director, David Tucker.
"Forming these relationships will change the perceptions we have of Cuba, and
that's a good thing."
Miller sent letters to the U.S. State Department to help ensure Barcelo and
Sanchez got visas.
But a third Regla representative was denied a visa, said Jose Luis Noa, of
the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, D.C. "There are still problems
with this kind of interchange," said Noa, noting that in the past year the
United States has denied visas to a number of Cuban mayors hoping to visit
their sister cities.
"This visit is very important because it helps improve communication
between the countries," Noa said.
Barcelo and Sanchez visited Richmond's health clinics and hospitals,
schools and libraries, art center, marina and city council chambers. They
toured the University of California at Berkeley campus, lunched with Francis
Ford Coppola at his North Beach restaurant, took in a Golden State Warriors
game and hiked in Muir Woods.
Richmond Mayor Irma Anderson has been a prime mover behind the sister-city
relationship. She headed a 21-person delegation to Regla in 1999 and said she
was impressed by its health and education systems.
"Theirs is community-oriented health care," said Anderson, former director
of public health nursing in Contra Costa County. "They have no morbidity in
childbirth because they do follow-up. If the mother doesn't make it to the
doctor's office, they visit her at home."
Anderson, who took Barcelo on a tour of Richmond, said she was aiming to
establish exchanges between the two cities in health care, education and the
By Friday, the two mayors had a long list of plans.
They hope to send Richmond schoolteachers to Cuba to learn why Regla has a
98 percent literacy rate. And they want to send a team of public health
professionals to study Regla's highly regarded community-based mental health
In turn, Regla officials are eager to emulate the Richmond-based National
Institute for Arts and Disabilities. And they hope Richmond's city manager
will fly down and help them improve their city's administration.
©2001 San Francisco Chronicle