Illinois Gov Set For Groundbreaking Visit To Cuba
By Dave McKinney, Special to Stateline
Illinois Gov. George Ryan is about to become the nation's first sitting governor in nearly 40 years to visit Cuba.
The cigar-smoking Republican, who speaks few words of Spanish, has plunged into a fierce debate over U.S. policy toward the communist nation as he plans for what he calls an "historic humanitarian mission." The five-day trip is scheduled to begin on Saturday, Oct. 23.
Ryan, who has bucked many in the GOP by calling for the relaxation of restrictions on trade with Cuba, has promised nearly $2 million of donated food, drugs, school supplies and other goods to "help the kids, the elderly and the people who need help down there."
He will lead a delegation of 80 Illinois state officials, legislators and aides.
"It is my belief - and the belief of many people in Illinois - that isolating the Cuban people is a policy that is not in the best interests of Cuba, of Illinois, or of the United States," Ryan said as he prepared for the trip. "I don't think we should use the staples of life as a political weapon."
His trip has provoked a tirade from anti-Castro Cuban-Americans in Chicago, Florida and in Congress, who believe he will do nothing more than legitimize a lengthy record of alleged human rights violations under Fidel Castro.
U.S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), a Havana native whose family fled Cuba after Castro's rise to power, chastised his fellow Republican for "promoting business with a dictatorship."
"It is hard for me to believe that you would have supported business deals by Illinois-based companies with (Adolf) Hitler's regime," Diaz-Balart said in a letter he sent to Ryan, urging against the trip.With the Treasury Department closely scrutinizing his unprecedented application for travel to Cuba, Ryan has emphasized only the humanitarian benefits of his planned trip during recent weeks.
However earlier, in contrast, the governor strongly implied that Illinois' agricultural, pharmaceutical and manufacturing industries could benefit from such a journey.
"I think there are opportunities, lots of opportunities, for Illinois business frankly to promote and sell products,'' Ryan said in August.
Before acting on Ryan's request, government officials insisted this week that his entourage drop plans to meet with Cuba's top foreign trade official. A Cuban-arranged, daylong visit to one of the island's top tourist destinations also was dropped from the itinerary at the Treasury Department's insistence.
The U.S. has barred direct trade with Cuba since 1960 and allows only food, drugs and humanitarian shipments there. Recently, front-running GOP presidential candidate George W. Bush, whom Ryan has endorsed, vowed to keep current trade restrictions against Cuba in place as long as Castro blocks sweeping democratic reforms there.
Ryan's standing among Illinois voters has taken a pounding since last spring when critics accused him of reneging on pledges to oppose tax increases and permit casino gambling in Cook County, the state's most populous region.
Compounding matters is an expanding federal bribery probe of the Illinois secretary of state office, which Ryan held for eight years before becoming governor. Ryan is not personally a target, though federal prosecutors have said as much as $130,000 in bribes given state employees by truck-license applicants wound up in his campaign fund.
Some political observers believe that Ryan's groundbreaking trip to Cuba is an attempt to shift focus from some of those problems, while shoring up support within other segments of the state's Latino community beyond Cuban-Americans.
"It'll be a very pronounced public gesture if he goes there that will deflect attention from this widening scandal within his former secretary of state's office,'' said John Pelissero, a Loyola University political science professor who specializes in Illinois politics. "I think he'd like anything in the news except something more about the secretary of state's office."
Ryan, who successfully brought warring political factions together behind a series of major springtime legislative victories he engineered, dismisses his critics and simply believes that this first foreign trip since taking office last January fulfills an important commitment to voters.
"It is my responsibility as governor to build bridges - economic, cultural and humanitarian - between Illinois and other countries," the governor added. "I take that responsibility very seriously."