Wearing a Santa suit and a wide grin, a wealthy Florida rancher doled out sneakers and sweets to Cuban children Sunday, bringing holiday cheer to this communist-run island where the Christmas season goes largely unobserved.
About 150 kids ages 5 to 15 shrieked with pleasure, applauded and shouted "Viva Santa Claus!" as John Parke Wright tottered into an auditorium at a Roman Catholic convent on Havana's eastern outskirts.
"Feliz Navidad!" he bellowed, Spanish for "Merry Christmas!"
The celebration marked "Three Kings Day," a Jan. 6 holiday popular in Latin America that commemorates the arrival of three wise men bearing gifts for the newborn Jesus.
It was the first time many of the kids had seen Santa other than on television. Some came forward timidly and politely shook hands with Wright as he handed them pairs of brand-name shoes, athletic socks, candy and the occasional teddy bear. Others threw their arms around him.
Washington's embargo prohibits most U.S.-Cuba trade but allows some sales of U.S. agricultural products, and Wright travels to the island several times a year to represent his Florida cattle business. He paid for the goodies he gave away and also donated baseball gloves, balls and caps to players for two little league teams he organized.
An outspoken critic of the embargo, Wright talked more about the North Pole than politics Sunday.
Cuba was for decades officially atheist and today many families are very poor and can't afford elaborate gifts for their children.
Wright's visit was not officially sanctioned by Cuba's government, but Fidel Castro's nephew Angel Ramon Castro was on hand for the giveaway. Fidel Castro has been recuperating in an undisclosed location since July 2006, when he stepped aside in favor of a provisional government headed by his brother Raul.
Asked about Fidel's health, Angel Ramon Castro said, "We know he's active and that's the most important thing. ... He's still a strong man with strong values, and he's doing fine."
Earlier Sunday another Santa made an appearance in Havana: Eleven-year-old Rocio de Jesus Viso Bello, whose independent journalist father has been jailed by the government, donned a red-and-white suit and handed out dolls, toy cars, school supplies and DVD players to about 40 children of imprisoned dissidents.
That event was held in the cramped central Havana living room of Laura Pollan, wife of political prisoner Hector Maseda, and sponsored by the Cuban American National Foundation, a Miami exile group dedicated to undermining the Castro government.
Since a 2003 crackdown landed 75 dissidents behind bars, Pollan and other members of the Ladies in White protest group have organized "Three Kings" parties for the children and grandchildren of those jailed.
Cuban authorities dismiss government critics and dissidents as mercenaries of the U.S. — a charge the activists and Washington deny. But dissidents' relatives acknowledge they receive financial support from Cuban exiles for events like Sunday's party.
Each youngster greeted Santa with a kiss on the cheek — a common form of greeting in Cuba.
"Today is a day of happiness for children who have to stand so much suffering the other 365 days of the year," Pollan said.