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Chicago Sun-Times columnist Michael Sneed, center, shares a toast with Cuban President Fidel Castro, right, during a reception before a dinner at the Palace of the Revolution Jan. 24, 2002. llinois Gov. George Ryan, left, joins in the toast. | Sun-Times files

Sneed: A midnight dinner with Fidel Castro

SHARE Sneed: A midnight dinner with Fidel Castro
SHARE Sneed: A midnight dinner with Fidel Castro

It was bound to happen.

But somehow it seemed like it never would.

Fidel Castro, the seemingly immortal Cuban dictator who survived a revolution, an invasion, two papal visits by angry popes and a debilitating digestive disease, was dead.

When I met Castro in Havana in 2002, he seemed indomitable. A bit thin perhaps, a bit gregarious when we shared a glass of Cuban whiskey and discussed the merits of California wine – his one accession to an American product, and his favored drink before a mystery stomach ailment attacked him in a way no one else could.

It was quite an encounter.

When you’ve spent 48 years in the newspaper business, there may be much to forget. But not the night I met and dined with Fidel Castro.

So pull up a chair.

As I recall, it was approaching 10 p.m. on the veranda of the legendary Hotel Nacional de Cuba when I was told to watch for a pre-arranged hand signal from then-Gov. George Ryan, the first U.S. governor to lead a trade delegation to Cuba.

Ryan had been tipped Castro wanted to meet him privately, perhaps later that night. Inside the hotel, the press hovered around the bar while Ryan waited waited for them to vamoose in preparation for a bolt to a bus strategically parked outside to whisk him and his delegation to a secret “ unscheduled” dinner with Castro at the Presidential Palace.

When the last reporter disappeared, the bus blinked its lights and Ryan gave me the signal the game was afoot.

I jumped into the bus, headed for scoopsville, and amid trees transplanted from the mountains where he had conducted his insurgency, Castro held court in this special verdant wing of the palace.

“It made him feel at home,” Ryan said.

This was a night to remember, a book marker.

The evening began with Castro, decked out in military fatigues and spit-polished black boots, shotgunning questions about the United States to each member of the delegation dealt like cards around a long rectangular table.

Castro spoke in Spanish; his female translator — whose head seemed affixed to his chest — was his instantaneous microphone.

I took copious notes. But when I headed to the privacy of the loo to call my office and dictate my scoop, the cell phone signal was dead.

Dinner arrived after midnight. I remember langoustine and a bean dish, fruit and perhaps, a salad. It was elegant, but the food was unremarkable.

But what stood out was Castro’s dinner: a glass jar of imported yak’s milk, a dish of buffalo yogurt, and black beans and rice. I recall him giving us a lecture on the importance of black beans and how healthy he was now keeping his diet. He never mentioned a rumor of stomach cancer.

There were toasts and cheers, and Castro promised to raise a statue to Gov. Ryan in Havana in honor of his courage in leading the first U.S. trade delegation toCuba.

Then it was time to go.

In line to bid Castro adios, we all were given a box of Cuban cigars. I asked Castro to sign mine. I dumped the flowers and the bottle of Cuban brandy, but ran back to the table to retrieve Castro’s empty glass jar of imported yak’s milk. He graciously signed the torn paper label on it.

We shook hands. He gave me a hug. Well, a little more than a hug, but we won’t go there except to say I left with a chuckle, cigars, a milk bottle, a small box of mysterious pills that we were told was developed as a life enhancement . . . and a scoop.

I never tested the pills, which are still in my medicine cabinet, but I did enjoy my scoop.

And come to think about it, Castro was then my age now, 73.

Hmmmm. Perhaps it’s finally time for those pills.

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