EXCLUSIVE: George Ryan making return trip to Cuba
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Sneed exclusive . . .
The last hurrah?
In 1999, then-Gov. George Ryan became the first U.S. governor to lead a humanitarian trade mission to Cuba during the Castro regime.
Sneed has now learned Ryan will return to Cuba on Monday at the personal invitation of the Cuban government and a grateful country.
“I’ve been invited back for a visit,” said Ryan, who plans to put new paint on old memories.
“I hope to visit my portrait on the wall at the bar of Havana’s legendary Hotel Nacional, where we sipped ice cold daiquiris,” he chuckled. “Although I hear it’s next to a rogue’s gallery.”
“I can’t go back as a tourist,” he said. “This is also not a client trip or a humanitarian trip.
“Hell, I’m 84 years old,” he chirped. “I’m just really looking forward to rekindling memories and dreams we had back in 1999 for my first trip to Cuba in hopes of getting the embargo lifted,” he told Sneed.
“We are not bringing medical supplies with us this time, just a lot of hope for the future of our countries and refreshing some old, but wonderful, memories.
“Most everyone in our group is looking forward to buying cigars, rum and Cuban art,” said Ryan.
On the itinerary: “Visiting the Cathedral, which had been closed; a synagogue, where we once brought menorahs; visiting government types — and old friends no longer in government.”
Once hailed for his humanitarian effort and moxie by Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, Ryan was feted by Castro at a private dinner in 1999 at the Presidential Palace — and promised a statue to honor him in the future.
“It was quite an evening,” recalled Ryan, who noted an ailing Castro drank buffalo milk and ate yogurt while everyone else in the trade mission was served lobster.
“Castro also had a “taster” who always sampled his food, rarely slept in the same bed twice in a row, and gave the delegation a small carton of “longevity pills.” Ryan claimed he tested and analyzed them when he returned to Illinois,” the chuckled. “There was nothing in them of note except grain.”
The Ryan statue has yet to be built, but Omri Amrany, the Israeli-American artist who sculpted the Michael Jordan statue at the United Center, is an invited member of the group and hoping to explore an opportunity to build it, said attorney John Glennon, who helped arrange Ryan’s two state tours to Cuba and will be on the trip.
Though the Cuban government is no longer headed by the late Fidel or his ailing brother Raoul Castro, new Cuban President Miguel Canel-Diaz — who was not yet born when the Cuban revolution occurred — has indicated via the government grapevine he might stop by to personally greet the former governor.
“There is a big transition going on in Cuba and this is going to be fascinating to see any differences between then and now,” said Glennon.
“We never knew until the last minute if Fidel was going to show up or not,” he added. “It’s just the way their security system works. Fidel never stayed in the same place for very long, moving from place to place constantly.
“This is just a wonderful way for George and the Cuban people to reconnect,” he added.
Ryan’s group of 20 is expected to arrive in Havana on Monday and return Thursday.
Ryan, who was the first governor in Illinois to place a moratorium on the death penalty, became a staunch advocate against the death penalty and subsequently went to prison years later on federal corruption charges stemming from a probe of the secretary of state’s office years after his tenure there ended.
While he was in prison, his beloved wife, Lura Lynn, was diagnosed with cancer and died. He barely made her bedside.
“It was horrible to lose her, but life goes on,” he said. “I adored her and her ashes are on my fireplace mantle in Kankakee.”
Ryan is now dating Kitty Kelly, who will be among the other 19 people accompanying him to Cuba. The delegation also includes her son, Illinois businessman John Kelly.
“I suppose you could say he’s our chaperone,” Ryan chuckled.
Among the other guests on the Cuban trip are White Sox/Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf; Bolingbrook Mayor Roger Claar and his wife; Bulls ticket manager Joe O’Neil; Charlie Serrano, who organized the trip, and an assortment of buddies and their wives from Kankakee, where Ryan still lives.
“You know Castro sent me a box of cigars every Christmas until his death in 2016,” said Ryan.
“And he was the one who made a personal phone call to Nelson Mandela so I could meet him before we opened up a trade office in South Africa several years later.
“Lots of stories, he said. “Lots of stories.”
Sneedlings . . .
Saturday’s birthdays: Bernie Sanders, 77; stellar Sun-Times reporter Frank Main, 54; David Arquette, 47; and Pink, 39. . . . Sunday’s birthdays: Adam Sandler, 52; Michael Buble, 43; and J.R. Smith, 33.