Ex-Gov. Ryan 'got along well' with Castro but never forgot dictator's brutality
The beginnings of George Ryan's historic trip to Cuba -- where he was the first sitting U.S. governor to meet with Cuban dictator Fidel Castro -- can be traced back to a private conversation one rainy night with two men in the back of a van.
When making his bid for the governor's office in 1998, Ryan, a Republican from Kankakee, was asked for election help from Democratic state Rep. Edgar Lopez, who was in a tough re-election fight in his Chicago district.
"I went down to his district one night and he brought a fellow, (lobbyist) Charlie Serrano, and said, 'We have to talk in private.' We got into a van, and they asked me: 'If you win, would you be interested in going to Cuba?'" Ryan told the Daily Herald Sunday.
Lopez and Serrano both had connections to the Cuban community, and Lopez's district had a number of Cubans in it.
"I'd never given that a thought before," Ryan said. "I finally said, sure, I guess I would."
Seventeen years later, after news broke that Castro died Friday night at the age of 90, Ryan says he has been flooded with memories of the trip he calls one of the highlights of his governorship from 1999 to 2003. They include Ryan interrupting the characteristically long-winded dictator several times at a lengthy dinner, and Castro insisting Ryan return home with a Cuban child in tow.
After Ryan and Lopez were each victorious in November 1998, the wheels were quickly set in motion for a five-day trip to take place the next October.
Both houses of the General Assembly passed a resolution calling for the U.S. to lift its trade embargo against Cuba, making Illinois the only state in the country to have done so, according to Ryan.
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."
Because Ryan's trip was so historic, lawmakers, religious leaders and business executives asked him to look into a host of things on his trip that "only Castro would respond to."
One, he said, was from a Baptist church in North Carolina, which was concerned about the medical care of a young Cuban boy who had fallen from a second-story window while church members were on a mission to the island nation.
"During my meeting with Castro -- we met for like six hours -- I brought that up. He said the kid was getting excellent care, but you can take him home with you if you want."
Ryan said he delayed the delegation's departure from Cuba in order to have the director of Illinois' department of public health inspect the boy, who was brought to the airport.
"It was determined that the child was in fact getting very good care, and it would be a mistake to bring him with us. So we left him there, but Castro was almost insistent we take the boy," Ryan said.
Ryan describes the experience as a "wonderful trip. I had a great sense of pride that I did it and hoped it would improve the lifestyle of the Cuban people."
Ryan returned to Cuba once more in 2002 as part of a diplomatic mission with several pharmaceutical companies from Illinois. The trip came months after Ryan announced he would not seek a second term as governor, amid a growing scandal that would eventually lead to his imprisonment on corruption charges.
In the wake of Castro's death, Ryan says the U.S. should move quickly to make Cuba a U.S. state or territory.
"We ought to do it diplomatically. They're 90 miles off our shore. It would eliminate a lot of problems and it would certainly be a great humanitarian program," he said.