Guest Opinions

Remembering Castro the enigma and a 2004 trade mission meeting

Fidel Castro, then Sen. Larry Craig and Rep. Butch Otter met during a 2004 Idaho trade mission to Cuba.
Fidel Castro, then Sen. Larry Craig and Rep. Butch Otter met during a 2004 Idaho trade mission to Cuba. Martin Peterson

Fidel Castro’s passing brought forth the entire predictable scope of emotions. Cuban-Americans in Miami celebrated in the streets, and a number of U.S. politicians, including the president-elect, released statements essentially saying “good riddance.” In Cuba the response ran the gamut from huge public outpourings of grief to general ambivalence.

He was, on the one hand, an often brutal dictator who jailed or killed political opponents, shut down the free media, appropriated private property and made a complete mess of the Cuban economy. But to others he was the leader who ousted a corrupt dictatorship heavily beholden to U.S. crime bosses, brought literacy to something like 98 percent of all Cubans, made free health services available to all and provided each new mother with a full year of paid maternity leave.

The Castro regime had little impact on most Idahoans, except for those of us who were on active military duty during the Cuban missile crisis. One Idaho corporation, Boise Cascade, lost a valuable piece of property — the Havana electrical power plant — when it was nationalized by the government. Ketchum resident Mary Hemingway saw the handwriting on the wall and gifted to the Cuban people the estate that she and her late husband, Ernest Hemingway, owned in Cuba.

For me, Castro’s death brought back memories of several trips to Cuba, including one in 2004 that culminated in a nearly three-hour meeting with Castro at his office.

This trip was an Idaho trade mission, led by Sen. Larry Craig and then-Rep. Butch Otter. On Cuba’s list of priorities, food ranks just behind education and health care. Idaho is a food-producing state and Cuba is a potential export market.

When we met Castro, he was 77 years old and looked it. He was dressed in a dark suit, white shirt and tie. We were later told it was a great honor to us that he had shed his usual military fatigues and worn a suit.

When it was mentioned that I was a Hemingway scholar, he joked that he could tell because of my beard.

He had two very large briefing books with him that he had obviously absorbed before our meeting. He had an atlas with a map of the Pacific Northwest and asked whether there were any salmon in the Snake and Columbia rivers. This set off a discussion about salmon restoration efforts. He wondered about the difference between wild and farm-raised salmon, and Otter drew him a picture to show him how to differentiate between the two. Castro laughingly complimented him on his artwork and asked him to sign the picture for him.

He was also very curious about the lock system used to navigate the Snake and Columbia, and wondered what the difference might be in the cost of transporting Idaho goods via the rivers and the Panama Canal, versus by rail to New Orleans and then by ship to Cuba.

He had an incredible grasp of statistics. Each morning he checked the spot prices of a wide range of commodities subject to Cuban import and export. In fact, it struck me that his attention to economics seemed to be mired down in statistical minutia, rather than practical applications. A handful of U.S.-trained agricultural economists could have done wonders for him.

When asked what his biggest disappointment had been with the revolution, he said that black Cubans continued to be treated with lesser social status than lighter-skinned Cubans.

As is always the case with such meetings, gifts were exchanged. We presented him with a coffee-table book of Idaho pictures and wine from the Hells Canyon Winery. I took a photo of Castro holding a bottle of wine and presented it to my cousin, who was an investor in the winery. I included the inscription, “Cuba’s best red looks at Idaho’s best red.”

In return, Castro presented each of us with a box of legendary Cohiba Lancero cigars, along with flowers for the women in our party.

In addition, a member of his staff I had become acquainted with rushed out and had a print made of a photo of me meeting Castro and got it back in time to have him personally inscribe it to me.

Fidel Castro is gone, but he could well have exited singing the words to that old Frank Sinatra song, “I did it my way.”

Boise’s Martin Peterson is a longtime observer of Idaho politics and a member of the Statesman editorial board. He is retired.