Just back from a five-day official visit to Cuba--the first by a sitting U.S. governor since Fidel Castro took power in a revolution four decades ago--Illinois Gov. George Ryan (R) today dismissed State Department criticism of his nearly seven-hour meeting with the Cuban leader.
Ryan said his mission would have been a "failure" if he had not met with Castro, and he said he will contact other U.S. governors to urge them to travel to Cuba and meet with officials of the communist regime.
"Since I was the highest-level official in the United States to go there since the embargo was imposed, it would have been a mistake for me not to meet with Castro," Ryan said in a telephone interview. "My hope is there will be other state delegations that go, and hopefully we'll lift this embargo."
State Department spokesman James P. Rubin said Wednesday, after Ryan's meeting with the Cuban dictator, that personal visits with Castro should be avoided "to not give the impression that anyone supports the oppression that he has visited on his people."
Ryan said he did not interpret Rubin's remarks as a stricture against talking with Castro. He said no one told him during a 90-minute briefing by State Department officials before his trip that he could not meet with the Cuban leader.
Ryan stressed that his trip was primarily a humanitarian mission, and that the delegation of more than 45 state officials and representatives of agricultural, medical, educational and cultural groups had taken with them nearly $2 million in food, clothing and medical supplies.
The governor said "doors were opened" to an exchange of information. For example, he said, the medical delegates learned of two new vaccines recently developed in Cuba that are not available in the United States: one for leptospirosis, a microorganism that can cause kidney and liver failure, and another for a form of viral meningitis.
But during his trip, Ryan also repeatedly spoke out against the U.S. ban on trade with Cuba, saying it harms both countries. In a speech Wednesday at the University of Havana, the governor said, "As do many others in the United States, I believe that the current economic embargo against Cuba has not advanced cooperation or understanding between our two peoples."
Ryan said today that there is an "opportunity for a great market" in Cuba for Illinois, the nation's biggest soybean producer and second-biggest corn producer.
The governor said that at one point during his marathon meeting with Castro, he pulled out an atlas and showed him "how convenient it would be" to transport Illinois farm products by barge along the Illinois and Mississippi rivers to the Gulf of Mexico for shipment to Havana. He said the Cubans told him their commodity transportation costs would be 25 percent less under such an arrangement.
"We didn't talk about trade. We talked about philosophy and prices," Ryan said, apparently mindful of Rubin's assertion that "The embargo is the law of the land, and therefore there is no promotion of trade."
The U.S. embargo has strong support from the politically influential Cuban exile community in Miami, and Castro opponents have criticized Ryan's trip. In a letter to the governor before he began the trip, Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), a Cuban American, wrote, "It is hard for me to believe that you would have supported business deals by Illinois-based companies with Hitler's regime."
But farm groups, a powerful political force in Illinois, have been lobbying aggressively for an easing of the embargo to offset the free fall in commodities prices, caused in part by shrinking overseas markets.
Among the more than 40 delegates who traveled to Havana with Ryan were Allen Andreas, chief executive officer of the agribusiness Archer Daniels Midland Corp.
While in Cuba, Ryan also met with some of the country's best-known dissidents and discussed human rights with Castro and other Cuban officials. Rubin said the administration supported those efforts by Ryan.