"It was surreal": Idaho man on diplomatic meeting with Fidel Castro

Mike Tracy, former communications director for Sen.

BOISE -- Twelve years ago, three Idahoans had the opportunity to meet former president of Cuba, Fidel Castro, while he still controlled the island.

Related: Fidel Castro dead at 90

One of those men, Mike Tracy, accompanied then-U.S. Representative, now Governor of Idaho, C.L. "Butch" Otter and then-U.S. Senator Larry Craig on a diplomatic mission to the communist island. Tracy was the communication director for Sen. Craig at the time. These men had important matters to take care of with President Castro -- and were some of the last Americans that were able to do so before he ceded power.

"Most human beings would have never got to meet Fidel Castro -- especially Americans," Mike Tracy told KTVB.

Tracy, Rep. Otter and Sen. Craig were sitting just feet from the infamous dictator, on a mission to serve the United States.

"When I was in grade school he was so vilified," he added. "It was surreal."

They met with Castro for two and a half hours, and Tracy's job for the five days they were in Cuba was to maximize press for Craig and Otter. The lawmakers from Idaho were there for two reasons: One was an agricultural trade mission.

"Everything was done in cash," Tracy said. "It kind of was a door opener."

The other mission -- the principal reason they were in Cuba was for the Ernest Hemingway house exchange, where they set up an agreement to share the author's material from his Ketchum, Idaho house and Finca Vigia, his home in Cuba.

At the time, economic and diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba were strained, with limited trade and restrictions on travel.

"Back then we never thought there would be any kind of normalized relations with Cuba," Tracy said.

Castro gifted Tracy with a wooden box of his own personal cigars. To this day, the box remains Tracy's keepsake.

"It was a diplomatic pouch. So they let us bring in three boxes," he added.

With KTVB's Mark Johnson in 2004, Tracy auctioned off the Cuban cigars and a bottle of whiskey for $2,400. He says people wanted the cigars because it was a tangible form of the history.

Tracy says his visit with Sen. Craig and Rep. Otter was one of the last public meetings Fidel Castro held because his health began to spiral downward.

"He was very hollow at that point," Tracy told KTVB. "He wasn't as vibrant in 2004."

Then, two years later, his brother Raul Castro took over responsibilities of the presidency, assuming the official role in 2008.

"So many people risked their lives to get away and come to America," Tracy said. "More than anything, hearing the news this morning was a little bit shocking and it was a little bit of a relief as I watched the Cuban people in Miami celebrate."

Tracy said he thought he might feel threatened or wary in the Castro's presence, but he did not. Tracy also told they were allowed to go wherever they wanted, but he has no doubt Castro's security was following them throughout their stay.

Copyright 2016 KTVB


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