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McGovern headed to Cuba, hopes to meet with Castro

Fidel Castro takes George and Eleanor McGovern on a ride in Cuba on June 23, 1977. A translator is in the back of the vehicle with Eleanor McGovern. (Photo Courtesy of DWU Archives/McGovern Collection)

George McGovern will arrive in Havana, Cuba, today for a four-day Fourth of July weekend.

McGovern said Thursday he hopes to meet with Fidel Castro for the first time in nearly 17 years.

"I'm on the way now," McGovern said Thursday during a telephone interview with The Daily Republic.

He said while he hopes to meet with Castro, who has been battling health issues for the last few years, he's unsure if it will happen.

"You never know when you go down there until about 10 minutes beforehand," McGovern said. "That was true before he became ill and it may be even more true now."

McGovern, who is traveling with Diane Spoden, a "good friend" and aide, said if he does meet with the former Cuban dictator, it won't be for long.

"We will be lucky to have 10, 15 minutes with him," he said.

That wasn't the case in McGovern's seven previous trips to Cuba. He last visited Cuba in 1994.

McGovern said when he first visited Cuba in April 1975, Castro invited him over for "a long discourse" that lasted 10 and a half hours with no break except for glasses of water and trips to the restroom.

When the discussion was over, they traveled across Havana until 5 a.m., McGovern recalled.

"He wanted us to see there were no prostitutes on the streets, no gambling dens, no nightclubs," he said. "That all left with the Americans, he told us."

Before Castro took power in 1959, Havana was filled with nightclubs and was a popular spot for Americans on vacation as well as celebrities and Major League Baseball teams on spring training.

Numerous gangsters spent time in Havana then, but that changed when the communists took power.

On Feb. 7, 1962, the United States imposed an embargo against Cuba and by 1963 most Americans were prohibited from traveling there.

McGovern, however, has repeatedly visited Cuba, both when he was in the Senate and after he left public office. He also helped arrange a bit of "basketball diplomacy" between the two nations.

On April 4-8, 1977, members of the South Dakota State University and University of South Dakota men's basketball teams traveled to Cuba to play two games against the Cuban National Team. The combined SDSU-USD team lost both but made worldwide news.

McGovern said Castro, 84, may have stamped out the decadent nightlife in Havana, but he was a famed night owl himself.

He said when he was in Cuba, he would usually get word at 10 or 11 p.m. that "the president is ready to see you."

McGovern said he considers Castro a friend.

"I have gotten to know him quite well," he said. "And he knows I have championed the recognition of his country and I will continue to do so whether I see him or not."

He said Spoden helped make the arrangements so he could visit Cuba.

"You have to get permission. It's kind of a drawn-out process," McGovern said. "It's so silly. I could go to China easier. It's easier to go there than it is to go to Cuba, which is our next-door neighbor and no threat to us whatsoever."

Castro's younger brother, Raúl Castro, is now in power in Cuba. McGovern said he has met him before and hopes to talk with him this weekend.

McGovern said he will stay at the historic Hotel Nacional de Cuba in Havana. His trip will end late on Monday, when he will fly back to Miami.

"When you are shooting off fireworks, I'll be sitting on a plane flying from Fidel Castro," McGovern said.

The next day, he will fly to Washington, D.C., for a meeting at his new office in The Watergate office/apartment/hotel complex. McGovern was in the news earlier this week for having an office with the OFW law firm in the infamous complex.

He is also planning a trip to Stevensville, Mont., to see his daughter Ann and his "big Newfoundland dog" that is living with her there.

McGovern maintains a home across the street from the George and Eleanor McGovern Library and Center for Leadership and Public Service on the Dakota Wesleyan University campus in Mitchell. He also has a home in St. Augustine Beach, Fla.

While he may be home in South Dakota for his 89th birthday on July 19, McGovern said he has been invited to Paris as well. He said he enjoys many things about Paris, and said the famed Crazy Horse Paris cabaret is a place everyone should visit.

He said all the travel isn't difficult.

"I have an advanced age, but I never felt better in my life," he said. "Travel never bothers me."

McGovern, a Democrat, served South Dakota in the U.S. House from 1957 to 1961 and the U.S. Senate from 1963 to 1981. He was the Democratic presidential nominee in 1972 but lost to President Richard Nixon.