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A brief Cuba story

Monday, Nov 28, 2016

* Former Gov. George Ryan talked with Kerry Lester about his historic 1999 trip to Cuba

Although there had been no formal talks between the U.S. and Cuba since 1961, when President Dwight Eisenhower severed diplomatic relations after Castro signed a trade treaty with the Soviet Union, Ryan says he hosted a Cuban “representative” at a state dinner in Springfield shortly after his inauguration. He was then invited to visit Cuba.

Ryan, a pharmacist by trade, considered the visit a humanitarian mission. He said he “put together a package of pharmaceuticals and drugs the people needed, Jewish menorahs and things the Jewish community needed, some things from the Archdiocese of Chicago,” as well as school supplies for the trip.

“They’re very big on Abraham Lincoln in Cuba,” Ryan added.

Along with Ryan, the 45-member delegation included House Speaker Michael Madigan, House Minority Leader Lee Daniels, Senate Minority Leader Emil Jones, Lopez and Serrano.

Ryan describes lengthy meetings and dinners with Castro where “he never stopped talking. I had to interrupt him on several occasions.”

Ryan said he got along well with Castro. “But I never forgot where he came from. He took a lot of lives and he was a pretty brutal guy.”

There’s lots more, so go read the whole thing.

I was also on that trip. Castro held a marathon 3+ hour press conference and he yelled at me for asking about foreigners making big bucks running tourist hotels in his socialist paradise. I also asked about rampant prostitution and street hustling, and suggested his answer (if tourists want it, who am I to stop it?) sounded a lot like Batista. And I told him about a lunch I had with some military veterans who couldn’t afford shoes. He said I should send them some shoes, but I didn’t because I figured I would’ve put a big target on their backs.

* My greatest regret is that, because he pointed his finger in my face while yelling at me and then cut me off when I asked about the hotel owners, I didn’t get to ask Castro about something I’d witnessed countless times in Havana.

Whenever anybody I talked with in Cuba mentioned Castro, they never used the man’s name. Instead, they’d always slyly stroke their chin to mimic somebody stroking their own beard. People whispered to me that they did this because Castro had spies literally everywhere and nobody was sure who was whom. Saying his name out loud risked perking up somebody’s ears nearby and then draw unwanted attention to the person who was speaking.

Castro talked often during that press conference about how the people loved him and how free they all were. So, I wanted to use that chin-stroking thing as my final question, but I never got to ask it.

And now I never will.

- Posted by Rich Miller        

40 Comments
  1. - ArchPundit - Monday, Nov 28, 16 @ 11:25 am:

    Incredible. Good job on calling a dictator to account. Getting yelled at by Castro is a pretty good way to be remembered.


  2. - NIU Grad - Monday, Nov 28, 16 @ 11:26 am:

    You would have ignited a directive to spies to looking for people scratching their chins…I think you made the right choice.


  3. - wondering - Monday, Nov 28, 16 @ 11:40 am:

    You seem well informed, Rich. Was Cuba better off with Batista?


  4. - Rich Miller - Monday, Nov 28, 16 @ 11:41 am:

    ===Was Cuba better off with Batista? ===

    That’s not the question I’d ask.


  5. - 47th Ward - Monday, Nov 28, 16 @ 11:53 am:

    Say what you will about the often brutal reign of Fidel Castro, one of the signature exports from Cuba was doctors, who worked all over Central and South America, treating impoverished people for free. The U.S. sends money and celebrities to Haiti after natural disasters. Cuba sends doctors and medicine. That’s not nothing, and Cuba rarely gets any credit in the U.S. for that good work.

    But yeah, I’m glad he’s gone and hope freedom really can return to Cuba soon. Not sure Raul is a big fan of freedom, though, so it may still be a while before the whole security state is dismantled.


  6. - Casual observer - Monday, Nov 28, 16 @ 12:00 pm:

    Ryan said the US should move quickly to make Cuba a state or territory. I don’t think that would make Puerto Rico very happy. And, that would sure change the status of Gitmo.

    Rich, did you get to see Gitmo while there?


  7. - Amalia - Monday, Nov 28, 16 @ 12:02 pm:

    Rich, your notes on Castro are SO much better than those in Sneed!


  8. - TeeVee - Monday, Nov 28, 16 @ 12:06 pm:

    MSNBC has a show called The Profit-the guy invests in fledgling and troubled businesses. On last nights show he was in Cuba and it showed how oppressive the government is, both on business and socially and how people are still afraid to speak their mind. Filmed before Fidels death but predicated things may never change.


  9. - wordslinger - Monday, Nov 28, 16 @ 12:09 pm:

    The dictator is dead, which is a good thing. But the embargo was a ridiculous, scatter-brained failure.

    During the Cuban embargo, the United States did business and had trade with a lot of brutal dictators, including our good friends the Saudis and the commie dictatorships in the Soviet Union and China.

    For crying out loud, Nixon/Ford guaranteed Soviet purchases of U.S. wheat. You can do business with the Soviet gangsters when in it’s in the interest of U.S. business but not Cuba? Makes no sense.

    The opening to Cuba should continue. What better way to promote human rights and democracy?


  10. - Sir Reel - Monday, Nov 28, 16 @ 12:15 pm:

    Great idea. Now when us commentators surreptitiously talk about you, Rich, we won’t have to say your name. We’ll just pretend to stroke our “beards.” That way we won’t be banned.


  11. - Anonymous - Monday, Nov 28, 16 @ 12:15 pm:

    He was a not only a diehard communist, and all that brutally suggests, but it’s astonishing how many politicians nearly bowed and kiss the ….. feet of this demonista. While killing the body, soul, and freedom of millions, he is cheered by his apologists because he had great health care. A demented irony.


  12. - Robert the Bruce - Monday, Nov 28, 16 @ 12:16 pm:

    Excellent story. Good anecdote too if anyone accuses you of not asking difficult questions of difficult leaders.


  13. - GV - Monday, Nov 28, 16 @ 12:17 pm:

    @47th Ward,

    I lived in Central America for 3 years and worked extensively with host nation medical professionals, medical students, American medical professionals and military medical professionals. It was an almost universal opinion that the medical help that Castro sent was sub-standard by ill-trained medical students.


  14. - 47th Ward - Monday, Nov 28, 16 @ 12:33 pm:

    ===It was an almost universal opinion that the medical help that Castro sent was sub-standard by ill-trained medical students.===

    Yes, but I heard their cigars were top notch.

    And give yourself a big pat on the back for me GV. You sound like a regular Albert Schweitzer. Good for you!


  15. - Responsa - Monday, Nov 28, 16 @ 12:37 pm:

    Speaking of doctors from Cuba, if they had connections some ended up being able to defect to America in the very earliest days when it was still possible. My childhood doctor (GP) in Iroquois County was a Cuban refugee. He was a wonderful man and caring physician, an asset to our community and man, did he HATE Castro.


  16. - Steve Rogers - Monday, Nov 28, 16 @ 12:58 pm:

    In the Harry Potter series, you couldn’t use Voldemort’s name as it would break protective spells. Once again, life imitates art.


  17. - yeah - Monday, Nov 28, 16 @ 1:00 pm:

    Fidel was righteously paranoid and therefore survived 50 years longer than the Kennedy brothers and MLK. If it were not for the misguided actions of the US, we could have maintained better relations, and the climate could have been better in Cuba. We tried several time to assassinate the guy.
    The embargo has been great for all the non-Cuban sugar producers. Those Minnesota sugar beets and ADM corn syrup are good money makers due to the embargo. Billions have been made here in the US and the Minnesota Sugar Beet Producers Assoc. and ADM should send flowers.


  18. - Robert the 1st - Monday, Nov 28, 16 @ 1:08 pm:

    Wow… Did you feel safe asking those questions?


  19. - Baines4Prez - Monday, Nov 28, 16 @ 1:14 pm:

    Damn Rich, bravo! I can’t imagine that he received many questions and criticisms that were so pointed and accurate over the years, particularly over the last couple decades. As a journalist, such a reaction is indeed something that you should cherish towards your profession reputation forever.


  20. - ArchPundit - Monday, Nov 28, 16 @ 1:19 pm:

    —The opening to Cuba should continue. What better way to promote human rights and democracy?

    Exactly this. Flood the island with capital and the current regime will likely be forced to change faster than they have for the last 50+ years.


  21. - Rich Miller - Monday, Nov 28, 16 @ 1:22 pm:

    ===feel safe asking===

    Of course. I was covering an American trade mission. Plus, if he did have me arrested, I’d be almost guaranteed a Pulitzer for my resulting story. :)

    Very little downside.


  22. - ArchPundit - Monday, Nov 28, 16 @ 1:23 pm:

    ===The embargo has been great for all the non-Cuban sugar producers. Those Minnesota sugar beets and ADM corn syrup are good money makers due to the embargo. Billions have been made here in the US and the Minnesota Sugar Beet Producers Assoc. and ADM should send flowers.

    It’s more than the embargo. We have import quotas on sugar that have more of an impact. In fact, Minnesota Governor and much of the Minnesota Congressional Delegation just held a trade mission to Cuba because even in the Cuban trade restrictions were lessened, Cuban sugar would be subject to the import quotas.


  23. - Freezeup - Monday, Nov 28, 16 @ 1:24 pm:

    I’m jealous- very interesting bit of history to see first hand.


  24. - ArchPundit - Monday, Nov 28, 16 @ 1:26 pm:

    ===Was Cuba better off with Batista? ===

    ====That’s not the question I’d ask.

    Deposing Batista was generally a good thing other than the next guy pursued oppression also. Neither were justified in oppressing people.


  25. - Oswego Willy - Monday, Nov 28, 16 @ 1:30 pm:

    First, big fan of Kerry Lester, great stuff here, no surprise.

    Rich,

    Great story. That’s so interesting, you questioning Castro and the people of Cuba and their reactions talking about Castro too.

    I really enjoyed both parts here. Thanks for this, Rich.


  26. - 47th Ward - Monday, Nov 28, 16 @ 1:46 pm:

    ===and he yelled at me for asking about foreigners making big bucks running tourist hotels in his socialist paradise===

    No está ayudando, Senor Miller.


  27. - Stones - Monday, Nov 28, 16 @ 1:46 pm:

    Ironic that Castro lived to see many of the sanctions lifted although his brother was in power. When I was younger, the conventional thought was that diplomatic relations wouldn’t change until Fidel passed. I figured President Obama would have taken steps to lift the embargo but thought he would have done so earlier in his presidency.


  28. - Federalist - Monday, Nov 28, 16 @ 2:06 pm:

    Well. Michael Moore seems to think its a great place.

    I was to Cuba in December 2011. Nobody literally starving to death it seemed. but that is about it.

    We were told to bring things like aspirin because the people desperately needed such basics. The pharmacies had almost nothing in them.

    When Raul dies then we will see what really happens. I have several scenarios but would not want to predict anything.


  29. - Anonymous - Monday, Nov 28, 16 @ 2:21 pm:

    ===Ryan said the US should move quickly to make Cuba a state or territory.===

    This has to be in the running for the 2016 Stupidest Statements award. With thinking like that, thank God George Ryan is nowhere near the halls of power these days.


  30. - Downstate - Monday, Nov 28, 16 @ 2:47 pm:

    When you hear about the horrors of the US embargo, remember that Europe was still free to trade with Cuba. But they didn’t.

    Seeing all those 50’s cars on the road, how come there weren’t newer toyotas or Fiats? Daughter of a cement firm clued me in.

    Castro didn’t pay his bills. He could have easily sold goods and services to Europe and Asia, but they didn’t trust him to pay. French Cement firm only sold pre-paid to Castro because of his horrible reputation.

    The US embargo didn’t help Castro, but it was not the source of all his ills.


  31. - Cuba Libre - Monday, Nov 28, 16 @ 2:52 pm:

    Cuba has not really been successful in terms of its efforts at self-governance; every revolution seems to result in a new dictatorship. John Huston directed a film “We Were Strangers” about efforts to overthrow a dictatorial Cuban government that preceded Battista (who was in turn overthrown by Fidel Castro).

    I remember when I attended college, Cuba sent propaganda newspapers to campus leaders which blamed the USA for everything from public health crises to declines in milk production (Cuba cows were allegedly infected with diseases by the CIA).

    Crazy stuff.


  32. - Amigo - Monday, Nov 28, 16 @ 3:03 pm:

    I was there with you, Rich. It was a priceless opportunity to witness first hand the reality (as much as we were allowed to see without being some how followed around) of the creative ways a large number of Cubans in the island live day-in-and- day-out. Definitely on of the most interesting trips I have had so far.


  33. - Happily Retired - Monday, Nov 28, 16 @ 3:04 pm:

    Since GV is trying to debunk the quality of Cuban doctors, how do you feel about the fact that they are the only country in the Western Hemisphere with nearly a 100% literacy rate. The US falls woefully behind that. P.S. Been there and was very very impressed with the citizens who did so much with so very little. Congress needs to lift that embargo yesterday!


  34. - GV - Monday, Nov 28, 16 @ 3:08 pm:

    I’ve been there as well. I am strongly in favor of lifting the embargo. My heart yearns for a free Cuba.


  35. - Amigo - Monday, Nov 28, 16 @ 3:24 pm:

    “…Ryan describes lengthy meetings and dinners with Castro where “he never stopped talking. I had to interrupt him on several occasions.”

    BTW: On one dinner el Comandante talked for nearly 6 hrs.


  36. - Federalist - Monday, Nov 28, 16 @ 4:04 pm:

    @ Downstate - Monday, Nov 28, 16 @ 2:47 pm:

    When you hear about the horrors of the US embargo, remember that Europe was still free to trade with Cuba. But they didn’t.

    I have noted this to many people who like to blame the U.S. for Cuba’s plight. They ALWAYS give me a blank, dumb look.

    Seeing all those 50’s cars on the road, how come there weren’t newer toyotas or Fiats? Daughter of a cement firm clued me in.

    Castro didn’t pay his bills. He could have easily sold goods and services to Europe and Asia, but they didn’t trust him to pay. French Cement firm only sold pre-paid to Castro because of his horrible reputation.

    The US embargo didn’t help Castro, but it was not the source of all his ills.


  37. - Las Vegas Strip - Monday, Nov 28, 16 @ 5:03 pm:

    Castro got funding for the revolution from the 1960’s Las Vegas casino types. In return, Vegas got no casino competition in Cuba. East Coast tourists would have flocked to Cuban Casinos on 30 to 90-minute flights as opposed to 4-5 hour flights to Las Vegas in the 60’s. Not to mention the casinos would have been on the beaches! How fun would that be??!! What will Trump 2017-2021 bring? Stay tuned.


  38. - Mama - Monday, Nov 28, 16 @ 5:29 pm:

    What a wonderful memory for you Rich.


  39. - Downstate - Tuesday, Nov 29, 16 @ 7:42 am:

    Rich,
    This is a terrific story. I hope you get the chance to go back to Cuba, after they’ve thrown off the shackles of the Castro brothers. I would be fascinated to read your account of the changes that take place.


  40. - Payback - Tuesday, Nov 29, 16 @ 8:37 am:

    I met George Ryan over thirty years ago and worked to get him elected to more than one office, including Sec. of State. Although I did not know him well, the guys from the party did.

    I would not buy the story that Ryan was just invited to visit Cuba so he did. I can’t remember the back story angle why Ryan went there. Maybe someone here has an opinion about the real reason for Ryan’s visit?


Sorry, comments for this post are now closed.


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