House Speaker John Richardson, who paid his own way to go to Cuba with Gov. John Baldacci last week, said he was part of the discussion with President Fidel Castro and that meeting the dictator was crucial to winning what the administration says is a $20 million export deal for Maine.

“You’ve got to understand, Fidel Castro micromanages that economy and a failure to meet with him is a failure to gain a greater amount of export (dollars.) …He’s sharp as a tack. He has a full grasp of what’s going on in the agriculture field, and he definitely calls the shots,” Richardson said of Castro.

Richardson said he was technically a consultant to the trade mission, which included the governor and businesses representatives from the dairy, agricultural and timber industries, along with former Agriculture Secretary Robert Spear. Rep. Ed Dugay, D-Cherryfield, was there representing his company and also paid his own way. Richardson said the trip personally cost him between $2,000 and $3,000.

“The governor only stayed a day and a half. I headed up the official delegation from that point forward,” Richardson said.

During the governor’s short stay, the delegation got a “surprise” visit from Castro, Richardson said. News of that meeting sparked strong criticism from Republican legislative leaders, who said the meeting “lends legitimacy to a brutal communist ruler with an appalling record of human rights violations.”

Richardson said the talks were about agricultural products and people.

“We were talking about our likes and similarities…We’re a poor, very proud but poor state; we hold our children in high esteem; education is a big issue – in Cuba and in Maine. There are a lot of similarities,” he said.

Castro specifically wanted to know about Maine dairy cattle, Richardson said, because Maine farmers export dairy cattle to Cuba. There also were discussions about apples, potatoes, lumber and Maine seafood. “It was all on the table,” Richardson said.

The speaker said he didn’t understand the Republican reaction, since many of the business people on the trip were Republicans, and the trade mission was about creating Maine jobs.

“For the life of me, I don’t understand it,” said Richardson. “Meeting with Fidel Castro….it’s how we got from $10 to $20 million,” he said, referring to the original agreement for $10 million in Maine exports negotiated by Spear in April. That trip ended when Spear got seriously ill and had to be flown home. Spear has since been replaced as agriculture secretary, but asked to go on this latest trip.

Richardson said Republicans are “backing off” from their criticism because they’re hearing strong support for the governor’s trade agreement.

Rep. David Bowles, R-Sanford, the House minority leader, said he’s not backing off from anything and hasn’t received a single e-mail opposing his position.

“It’s just not an issue that I think needs to be prolonged,” said Bowles of his criticism of the governor, adding that if Richardson met with Castro, “shame on him, too.”

“We’ve not criticized the trade mission nor have we criticized trying to promote trade. Trade is not the issue. It’s the face-to-face meeting with a brutal dictator,” Bowles said.

Asked about President George Bush’s meetings with communist leaders, Bowles said it is up to the federal government to determine whether something useful can come out of those types of meetings.

“It’s the federal government that establishes foreign policy, not the states,” he said. “It has clearly been the formal policy of the United States since 1960 to not meet on a personal level with Fidel Castro.”

Richardson said, “Meeting with Fidel Castro…in this day and age that doesn’t mean much to people.”

U.S. law limits travel and trade to Cuba, but was amended in 2000 to allow the states to sell agricultural products to the country.

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