Former Illinois Gov. George Ryan, who in 1999 became the first U.S. governor to visit Cuba since the revolution, is book-ending that trip with a return to the island this week.
At the invitation of the Cuban government, Ryan will be leading a group of 21 that also includes Jerry Reinsdorf, the owner of the Chicago White Sox and Chicago Bulls; Roger Claar, the mayor of Bolingbrook, IL, and assorted other friends and associates of Ryan. They departed for Cuba Monday evening and are scheduled to return Thursday. While in Cuba, the group will stay at the Hotel Capri, one of the two Havana hotels where the U.S. government says health “attacks” on U.S. diplomats occurred.
Ryan, a Republican who served as governor from 1999-2003 and later spent several years in prison following corruption convictions, hopes to meet with high-ranking Cuban government officials. He also plans to meet with officials from Cuba’s Foreign Ministry, Agriculture Ministry and tour biotech facilities.
During the October 1999 trip, Ryan — an advocate of lifting the embargo — met with the late Fidel Castro for several hours and was greeted at the Havana airport by Ricardo Alarcón, then president of Cuba’s National Assembly. At one of his first stops, he waded into a crowd of Cuban onlookers and began shaking hands much as a U.S. politician would do when greeting potential voters.
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Ryan brought nearly $2 million in medical and relief supplies to help Cuba recover from a spate of hurricanes, said Charles Serrano, president of Antilles Strategy Group, who coordinated the 1999 and current trips. Later in his governorship, Ryan returned to Cuba with a mission of Illinois pharmaceutical companies.
Ryan’s efforts were instrumental in opening up agricultural and humanitarian exports from the United States to Cuba. His visits also helped pave the way for the Chicago Tribune to get permission to open a news bureau in Havana.
On this trip, the 84-year-old Ryan hopes to rekindle old relationships and revisit the Havana Cathedral and other sights he saw during his first trips. But he also wants to see how he might help with efforts to lift the embargo.
“I am going to Cuba to meet with top officials to see what I and the people of Illinois can do to end this unproductive embargo,” Ryan said.
In a letter he recently wrote to Raúl Castro, Ryan said: “This senseless legislation and fruitless policy are an impediment to a harmonious and peaceful hemisphere.”
Much has happened since Ryan’s previous visits to Cuba. The United States and Cuba resumed diplomatic relations in 2015, but there have been many ups and downs in the U.S.-Cuba relationship since Ryan’s last visit to the island.
Castro has died; his brother Raúl Castro has retired from the presidency but still heads the Communist Party of Cuba, and there is a new president, Miguel Díaz-Canel. Ryan has requested meetings with both Castro and Díaz-Canel.
Ryan, who served as Illinois secretary of state from 1991-1999, also has been to prison in connection with a corruption scandal in the secretary of state’s office. He was convicted in April 2006 of 18 felony corruption charges related to a licenses-for-bribes scheme. He was released from federal prison in 2013 after serving more than five years.
But his interest in Cuba continued and he kept up a relationship with the Castro family. “Fidel Castro sent him a box of cigars every year at Christmas,” said Serrano.
Shortly after Ryan was released from prison, he met with Cuban Ambassador José Ramón Cabañas, who was then head of the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, said Serrano. At the time, Cabañas inquired if Ryan would be interested in revisiting Cuba.
More recently, “Ryan was frustrated that after the Obama opening, the U.S. relationship with Cuba went backwards and he started to talk about planning another trip to Cuba,” said Serrano.
Follow Mimi Whitefield on Twitter: @HeraldMimi