Ten years later, Ryan's trip to Cuba has had little impact on Illinois

Adriana Colindres

Nearly 10 years after accompanying Illinois Gov. George Ryan on a historic trip to Fidel Castro's Cuba, members of the delegation say they're glad they went.

"I can't imagine it wasn't personally rewarding for each and every one of us," said David Chicoine, a former dean of University of Illinois' College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences.

Harder to gauge, however, is whether the October 1999 journey was of lasting benefit for Illinois.

Ryan initially described the five-day trip as a way to foster a trade relationship someday between Cuba and Illinois, but the U.S. government frowned on that. It later was billed as a "humanitarian mission" to help Cubans and Illinoisans build bridges with one another.

The delegation of about 50 included lawmakers, educators and officials from Peoria-based Caterpillar Inc., Decatur-based Archer Daniels Midland and other Illinois businesses.

The trip made Ryan, a Republican, the first sitting U.S. governor to travel to Cuba since Castro seized power in 1959.

U.S. POLICY CHANGING

While Castro has since stepped aside in favor of his brother, Raul, the relationship between Cuba and the United States is unchanged. The two countries still don't have formal diplomatic relations, and a U.S. trade embargo against the island nation remains in effect.

Throughout his Cuban travels, Ryan repeatedly called for an end to the embargo.

Last month, President Barack Obama announced the U.S. government would lift restrictions on how much money Cuban-Americans could send to their Cuban relatives. Further, the president said, Cuban-Americans should be allowed to travel to Cuba as much as they want.

Several members of the Ryan delegation said they support Obama's moves. Some would like to see him go even further by dropping the embargo.

"I think the evidence is real clear that the boycott has not worked. It's only helped Castro to sustain himself in power," said House Speaker Michael Madigan, a Chicago Democrat.

"I think we ought to just normalize relations with the island," he added. "The best way to dismantle the communist regime in Cuba is to normalize relations with America so there can be a free flow of goods and services and information."

Todd Sieben, a former Republican state senator from Geneseo, called Obama's actions a positive step.

"I think the time is long past since Cuba represents any kind of threat to the United States," he said.

In south Florida, where delegation member Ana Cecilia Velasco now lives, the U.S. policy changes have led to a divided response from the large numbers of Cuban-Americans who settled there after fleeing Castro's regime.

"You'll find people who are fanatically against anything supporting the Cuban government," Velasco said. "However, you will also find people who have parents (in Cuba) who are getting older in age," so they want to travel there more easily.

As for her own view, Velasco said she has "great faith that whatever President Obama is doing right now has been done thoughtfully and with a lot of care as to what consequences and repercussions the United States, as a whole, is going to have to live with."

BOON TO ILLINOIS TRADE?

Opening trade between the United States and Cuba could benefit certain sectors of the U.S. economy, including agriculture, pharmaceuticals and heavy machinery – all of which have a strong presence in Illinois.

But it's unclear whether the 1999 trip means that the Land of Lincoln would stand to gain more than other states if Cuba and the United States normalize diplomatic relations.

"That's a long time ago. That's 10 years ago," Chicoine said. "From an economic standpoint, it's probably much more of an important issue for the Cubans and the Cuban economy than it is for the U.S."

Doug Crew, a retired governmental affairs manager at Caterpillar Inc., added: "Given the time that has passed since then, I think the potential for opportunity because of that trip is increasingly limited."

State Sen. Dan Rutherford, R-Chenoa, believes the Illinois economy would get a boost from open trade with Cuba, though not necessarily just because of the Ryan trip. Illinois is well-positioned to do big business with Cuba because it's a major producer of corn and soybeans and a major manufacturer of pharmaceuticals, he said.

Geography also plays a role, Madigan said, recalling how Ryan used a map to point out to Castro how easily goods could be transported on the Mississippi River from Illinois to Cuba.

PLACE IN HISTORY

In the long run, the Ryan delegation's trip to Cuba might be remembered more for its historical significance in altering the way Cuba and the United States deal with one another.

"These kinds of geopolitical changes usually don't take place as a result of one incident," said Crew, citing President Ronald Reagan's 1987 speech calling for the destruction of the Berlin Wall.

That speech didn't immediately cause the Berlin Wall to fall, but it eventually did come down. Similarly, Ryan's gesture by going to Cuba helps make the case for easing U.S. sanctions, he said.

An attempt to contact Ryan, now in federal prison on corruption charges, was unsuccessful. His wife, Lura Lynn, said neither of them is speaking to the media.

Rutherford, who in 1999 was a state representative, credited Ryan for his "foresight and tenacity in taking on this political statement."

The U.S. government authorized Ryan's trip to Cuba but wasn't exactly thrilled about it, several delegates recalled. After Ryan met with Castro, a State Department spokesman said he shouldn't have done it.

Ryan was firm in his belief that the trip "ought to happen," Madigan said.

"When the historians write about the relationship between the United States and Cuba, in what will eventually become normalization of relations, I'm sure they'll point to Ryan's trip," he said. "And they'll either say that it helped or it didn't hurt."

Adriana Colindres can be reached at (217) 782-6292 oradriana.colindres@sj-r.com.

WHO WENT?

A list of the members of the 1999 Illinois delegation to Cuba and their affiliations at the time.

POLITICAL LEADERS

Gov. George Ryan

First lady Lura Lynn Ryan

House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago

House Republican Leader Lee Daniels, R-Elmhurst

Senate Democratic Leader Emil Jones, D-Chicago

State Sen. Todd Sieben, R-Geneseo

State Rep. Dan Rutherford, R-Chenoa

State Rep. Edgar Lopez, D-Chicago

STATE OFFICIALS

Robert Newtson, governor's chief of staff

Dave Urbanek, governor's press secretary

Pam McDonough, Department of Commerce and Community Affairs director

Joe Hannon, managing director of DCCA's international business division

Michael Rosenfeld, DCCA general counsel

Margo Theodore, DCCA foreign affairs specialist

Jose Munoz, Hispanic liaison, governor's office

Charles Frame, security detail

Jose Marrero, security detail

Matt Ferguson, Illinois Information Service photographer

Delia Perez, translator

AGRICULTURAL DELEGATION

Joe Hampton, Department of Agriculture director

William Sand, representative, John Deere Foundation

Allen Andreas, chief executive officer, Archer Daniels Midland Corp.

Richard Reising, vice president, ADM Corp.

David Chicoine, dean of the University of Illinois College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences

Dan Martin, director, Ecosystems, Conservation and Policy, MacArthur Foundation

Orion Samuelson, WGN radio, Chicago

EDUCATIONAL AND CULTURAL DELEGATION

Shirley Madigan, chairwoman, Illinois Arts Council

Bishop Joseph Perry, Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago

Bob Collins, WGN radio

Christine Collins, WGN radio

Audrey Anne Clarke, WGN radio

Philip Reid, WGN radio

Charles Serrano, president, Legislative Strategies Inc.

Zale Glauberman, representative, American Jewish community

Lourdes Monteagudo, board member, Chicago Board of Education

Maritza Marrero, vice chancellor of human resources, City Colleges of Chicago

Ana Cecilia Valasco, informal college recruiter

Anne Davis, president, Illinois Education Association

MEDICAL DELEGATION

Dr. John Lumpkin, Department of Public Health director

Jorge Guerra, vice chairman, Baxter International Regional Business Practice Committee

Dr. Lisa Thornton, director of pediatrics, La Rabida Children's Hospital, Chicago

Dr. Carl Getto, dean, Southern Illinois University School of Medicine

Dr. Roberto Diaz, physician, Sacred Heart Hospital, Chicago

Pete Peters, specialist, long-term health care

John Glennon, president, Health Alliances and North American Capital Opportunities Inc.

Arecelia Vila, vice president of public affairs, Schering-Plough