The time Maine officials discussed dairy cow insemination with Fidel Castro

Good morning from Augusta, where the Friday death of Cuban leader Fidel Castro landed with understandably muted reactions compared to south Florida or Washington, D.C.

But for a few Maine politicians and business leaders, it conjured up memories of a surreal meeting in late 2005 with Castro while on a trade mission to Cuba.

The meeting with Castro, who overthrew a Cuban dictator only to be labeled one himself by leading a repressive communist regime, was credited with helping secure a deal that increased Maine agricultural exports to Cuba from $10 million to $20 million.

State-level agreements such as Maine’s were an early step in normalizing U.S. relations with Cuba that culminated with President Barack Obama’s loosening of travel and trade restrictions with the Caribbean nation earlier this year.

However, it caused some political headaches for then-Gov. John Baldacci, a Democrat who was running for re-election in 2006 and got criticized by Republicans for allowing himself to be a propaganda tool for Castro.

In an interview with the Bangor Daily News on Sunday, Baldacci said being a fan of the late President John F. Kennedy — whose Bay of Pigs confrontation with Castro and the Soviet Union was perhaps the closest the world has come to nuclear war — he didn’t particularly want to meet with Castro.

But he said that he was persuaded by Maine dairy, lumber and farming interests that it would help secure exports. The meeting was understood to be a possibility on the trade mission, but it wasn’t a sure thing.

Former Maine House speaker John Richardson said the delegation was woken up at night at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, put into three Mercedes-Benzs and driven at 90 miles per hour by Cuban security officials to the meeting — precautions likely taken because of the hundreds of assassination attempts against Castro.

Once there, Castro engaged the delegation in a discussion about Maine dairy cows. It was a subject he was virtually obsessed with throughout his tenure, as Cuban cows were traditionally raised for meat and not milk. When his favorite milk cow died, she got a full-page obituary in the state-run newspaper.

Baldacci said seeing native Maine farmers discuss the artificial insemination of milk cows with a Cold War relic gave him the thought “that Saturday Night Live couldn’t be any funnier than this.”

The former governor said he was “taken by his presence, his presentation and his oratory,” but he was worried about Mainers being used as a propaganda tool. While photos were taken with Castro and the delegation, Baldacci said he avoided ceremonial agreement signings or other formalities.

Richardson, a Democrat from Brunswick, said for being 80 years old, Castro was was sharp with a “good grasp of world politics.” He said that Castro even conceded that his control of the Cuban economy “failed to a certain extent.”

The former governor compared Castro to the Wizard of Oz in Cuba, saying he was “pulling the strings and calling the shots” even in his later years.

Baldacci said he’s optimistic that U.S.-Cuban relations could normalize more with Castro’s death. However, it’s unclear where President-elect Donald Trump stands on that. On Monday, he tweeted that he’d terminate the Cuba loosening unless the country makes a better deal.

Richardson said the meeting “confirmed what I read and heard about Fidel Castro that he was a very dynamic but dangerous figure, and more dangerous to his people than he had to been to the world,” despite the universal health care program that his supporters praise him for.

“Are some things better there than elsewhere? Sure,” Richardson said. “But I don’t think murder, oppression and the absence of free speech are things to brag about.” — Michael Shepherd

Quick hits

  • Maine’s agriculture chief discussed the Trump transition on WVOM on Monday. We flagged the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry as a potential talent pool for the Trump administration last week. On the radio Monday, Commissioner Walter Whitcomb, a Trump agriculture adviser, focused on the importance of two political appointees who run Maine operations from Bangor for the United States Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency and the Rural Development Agency. Donovan Todd and Virginia Manuel, appointees of President Barack Obama who sit in those positions now, are set to be replaced by Trump within six weeks, said Whitcomb, who urged “individuals that have strong backgrounds in finance and community support to show an interest.”
  • The state’s Revenue Forecasting Committee will meet on Monday. They’re expected to discuss the potential impact on Maine’s economy from Trump’s election and the four referendum questions that passed on the statewide ballot this year, according to the Sun Journal. But earlier this month, the committee predicted that income and wage growth will be lower than anticipated six months before.
  • Here’s how legislators can submit a bill for the upcoming session. They use this online form. Lawmakers are back in Augusta to be sworn in on Dec. 7 ahead of the January session. — Michael Shepherd

Clarification: An earlier version of this post wasn’t clear about who could use the online form to submit legislative bills. It’s only used by legislators and their aides, according to Revisor of Statutes Suzanne Gresser.

Reading list

Best of Maine’s Craigslist

  • Protege needed; benefits unclear: A man is offering a woman “a place to stay and food” to be his protege and “distract me from ever attempting to initiate or participate in another conversation using this site.” Plus, there are “other rewards for being my protege, too many to list here.”
  • Flirting at the laundromat didn’t go well: A man bumped his head on a woman’s dryer at a Portland laundromat and “for a brief moment, you thought that I thought it was your fault” and now feels bad. But he says he’s “usually more coordinated” and more of a conversationalist “when I’m not in pain” and when they made eye contact, he “sensed something… more?”
  • Mystery Sears man seeks “attractive sexy” Sears women: A man who shops or works — he’s not saying for mystique’s sake (or so he’s not fired) — at the Sears in South Portland tells “attractive sexy women between 18 and 50” who shop there that “you never know who you might see that wants you.” Here’s your soundtrack— Michael Shepherd
Michael Shepherd

About Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after covering state, federal and local issues for the Kennebec Journal for three years. He's a Hallowell native who now lives in Gardiner. He graduated from the University of Maine in 2012 and is a graduate student at the University of Southern Maine's Muskie School of Public Service.