A Sea Change on Cuba Is Close. but No Cigar ; out of America ++ A Whiff of Havana on Board the Ex-Presidential Yacht

Article excerpt

Last week, in fulfilment of a long-held ambition. I visited the USS Sequoia, the former Presidential yacht.

These day she is in private hands, docked during the summer months on the Potomac waterfront in downtown Washington, and available for functions at about $2,500 ([pound]1,270) an hour.

I was there for a think tank gathering about US relations with Cuba, but I would have gone just to watch the paint dry.

The Sequoia has been described as "the most important piece of Americana not owned by the government" - a circumstance that arose when Jimmy Carter put her up for auction in 1977, deeming a yacht an extravagance out of keeping with his no frills presidency.

Somewhat belatedly, Congress has woken up to the loss and attempted to buy back the Sequoia. "No way," replies the Washington lawyer Gary Silversmith, the boat's owner, who has spent millions restoring her.

And who can blame him? Stroll around the cosy, yet airy quarters, and you see the table that John Kennedy held his last birthday dinner in 1963, the aft salon where Roosevelt plotted Second World War strategy and Richard Nixon discussed arms control with Leonid Brezhnev - and at a fateful family dinner on 1 August, 1974, made his decision to resign.

In short, the Sequoia is a great place to think about important things: like the Second World War, arms control - and now, unofficially, US policy towards Cuba.

In fact, though overshadowed by the setting, the Cuba get- together this week was pretty interesting.

Its premise was that, just possibly, America's idiotic, counterproductive policy towards Fidel Castro's regime, which has operated for half a century, may be about to change.

We all know what that policy consists of: a mix of spiteful persecution and half-baked schemes to topple Castro.

Opponents of the regime are treated as heroes - to the extent that this month a court threw out charges of immigration fraud against Cuban exile Luis Posada Carriles, despite evidence that Carriles was behind the 1976 bombing of a Cuban airliner in which 73 people were killed. …