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    George McGovern leaving Cuba without seeing Castro

    George McGovern leaving Cuba without seeing
    By PETER ORSI, Associated Press
    11:31 a.m., July 4, 2011

    — Former Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern was
    heading back to the on Monday without having seen Fidel
    Castro, whom he calls an old friend, for the first time in nearly 17 years.

    The 88-year-old former senator from South Dakota said officials told him
    Castro, who temporarily stepped aside as president in 2006 and then
    resigned permanently in 2008, has been "extremely busy" with official
    matters and the presence of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who left
    the island early Monday after several weeks recovering from cancer surgery.

    McGovern told The Associated Press last week that while he had not
    received an official invitation, people close to Castro assured him the
    ailing 84-year-old former leader would be happy to meet with him. He
    said he wanted to see Castro while the former Cuban president is still
    alive, and arrived in Havana on Friday.

    McGovern said that during his stay he met with officials including
    Cuba's foreign minister, Bruno Rodriguez; toured a Havana medical clinic
    that combines treatment, research and training; and dined at the popular
    restaurant La Guarida, famous overseas as the filming location for the
    Oscar-nominated 1993 movie "Strawberry and Chocolate."

    "I would have come even if I'd known I wasn't going to see Fidel. I'm
    interested in Cuba and the progress they're making," McGovern said.

    "Obviously the star of the show when you come to Cuba is Fidel," he
    added. "But I knew that he was ill. I knew that the Venezuelan president
    was here and took a considerable amount of his time, so I'm not entirely

    He told the AP he was leaving for the to catch his afternoon
    flight to Florida, where he maintains a second home. He said he may
    return another time, but had no immediate plans to do so.

    McGovern first visited Cuba in 1975, when he and Castro began what he
    described as a warm relationship.

    "It might seem hard to believe, but I spent a total of 14 hours with
    him, nearly all of one night and then a good part of two other days,"
    McGovern said. "By the end of that experience I felt I really knew the
    man and I felt that he knew me, and we've had a rather friendly
    relationship ever since."

    He has returned a half-dozen times since then, most recently in 1994.

    McGovern, best known for losing the presidency to Richard Nixon in 1972,
    has long opposed the U.S. trade against Cuba and its ban on
    American to the island, and favors normalization of diplomatic

    McGovern said he did not speak with Cuban officials about the case of
    , an American contractor who was working on a USAID-funded
    democracy program when he was jailed in 2009. was sentenced to 15
    years this spring on charges of illegally importing communications

    The Associated Press