By Christine Parrish | VillageSoup.com
“Fidel Castro was very interested in Maine and very cordial,” said Jim Robbins, owner of Robbins Lumber in Searsmont.
Robbins was among the 20-member delegation that visited Cuba for five days in December. “Politics were not mentioned,” he said. “We talked business.”
Castro met for two hours with Robbins, state veterinarian Don Hoenig of Belfast, and other members of the Maine delegation, including Gov. John E. Baldacci. The discussion centered on trade.
“We discussed the environment, energy, forest products,” Robbins said. “He was very interested in cattle and had a passion for cattle breeding.”
After word came to the delegation that Castro wanted to meet the governor before he returned to Maine, Cuban officials selected nine members of the Maine delegation to attend the meeting.
According to Hoenig, the small group packed into black cars and raced through the streets of Havana to the convention center near the port, where they were ushered to a second-floor conference room after being relieved of their cameras, pens and notebooks.
Cuban leader Fidel Castro, center, is flanked by Don Hoenig, left, and Gov. John Baldacci, right, during a trade mission to Cuba in December. (Photo by Don Hoenig)
Compared to Americans, Hoenig said, wages are unimaginably low. But every Cuban, he was told, has basic housing, health care, food and schooling. Cuba, he learned, has a low infant mortality rate, a low obesity rate, and a low level of malnutrition.
Hoenig said the infrastructure of Havana is crumbling, however, and the pollution is severe.
“The location of Havana is stunning,” he said. “It is one of the most beautiful spots for a city in the world. A seawall runs along the front of the city for three of four miles, with the Atlantic right there.”
“Parts of the city were beautiful, these buildings from the 1930s,” said Hoenig. “But I saw people outside washing their clothes in puddles, so I guessed there was no water in the building.”
Both times he visited Cuba as a delegate, Hoenig said he felt he was under surveillance and could not avoid a feeling of paranoia, part of which he attributed to childhood memories of hiding under his desk at school during air-raid drills, after the U.S. standoff with the Soviet Union over the presence of Russian nuclear missiles in Cuba.
“You go in there with the knowledge that you are being watched and recorded,” he said.” That’s all.”