News

Idaho's Cuban Connection

From Butch Otter to Juan Serrano

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In the spring of 1962, President John F. Kennedy asked his press secretary, Pierre Salinger, to buy some Cuban cigars. No problem. The man known as Lucky Pierre would, more often than not, have a cigar close at hand. In his memoir, Salinger remembered what happened the following day.

"How did you do, Pierre?" asked the president as I walked through the door.

"Very well," I answered. In fact, I'd gotten 1,200 Petit Upmann Cubans. Kennedy smiled, and opened up his desk. He took out a long paper which he immediately signed. It was the decree banning all Cuban products from the United States.

El bloqueo (the blockade) remains to this day. Commercial, economic and financial embargoes to and from Cuba still hold, and unless special permission is granted, any U.S. citizen illegally traveling to Cuba can be fined up to $1 million and imprisoned for up to 10 years. But that could change very soon.

President Barack Obama wants to try something that each of his eight predecessors has failed at: to expand opportunities for Americans to travel to Cuba in an effort to encourage more contact between people in both countries. The decades-old embargo is expected to be left intact, but the White House is helping to draft a bill that would make food sales to Cuba easier. The measures couldn't make two men happier: Idaho Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter and starting pitcher for the Boise Hawks baseball team Juan Serrano. But that's where their similarities end.

Otter has traveled to Cuba four times in an effort to relive the days when he exported capitalism (and Idaho products) to communists. Otter is never shy in talking about the days when he successfully pitched frozen french fries to China after marrying into the J.R. Simplot family/company. One divorce and a few elected offices later, Otter was convinced he would have similar success in Cuba. When he was a congressman, Otter led three delegations to Havana. He helmed a fourth, as governor, in 2007.

"I have high hopes that the work we've done will result in a fruitful harvest for Idaho producers and businesses," Otter boasted in 2007. Publicly, the governor said the Idaho/Cuban connection was a match made in heaven. Privately, he was more clandestine.

"They lied to me," said Nathaniel Hoffman, former BW news editor, who attempted to follow the delegation. "They went out of their way to give me the slip. They'd give me false information about when and where they were traveling. They hid from me for days."

When Otter and his delegation, which included dozens of businessmen and government officials, returned to Idaho, there was plenty of back-slapping. An official release from the Governor's Office touted deals to sell biotechnology, seed potatoes and plenty of meat. Falls Brand Independent Meats of Twin Falls announced a plan to ship more than 50 tons of boneless pork, valued at more than $100,000, in a matter of months. None of it happened.

In fact, BW found a very cold trail in an attempt to track any business between Idaho and Cuba.

"We don't show any records," said Pamela Juker, Chief of Staff for Idaho's Department of Agriculture. "You may want to check with the U.S. Department of Agriculture."

"Nope," said Vince Matthews from the Idaho offices of the USDA. Have you tried the state Ag. Department?" We had. "Well, how about the Idaho Department of Commerce? They usually track those types of exports."

"Have you spoken to Ag. or the USDA?" asked Bibiana Nertney from commerce. This was starting to sound familiar. "We don't show anything."

So, in spite of four trips and a highly paid grocery salesman in the Governor's Office, Idaho remains frozen out of the Cuban marketplace.

But it's not as if Cuba doesn't need Idaho meat, potatoes, wheat and so much more.

"They desperately need food," remembered Hoffman. "A lot of restaurants just aren't any good. In fact, if you're looking for anything decent to eat, you're told to look for a line coming out of an alley. If you follow the line, it usually leads to someone's house where they're selling their personal food. There's a huge underground economy."

Hoffman has traveled secretly to Cuba twice, the first time in 2005.

"It was pretty stressful," said Hoffman. "I felt as if I was being followed a few times."

In both instances, Hoffman had to make his way to the forbidden island on his own.

"I flew through Mexico both times," he recalled. "The first time, I went to a hole-in-the-wall travel agency in Mexico City and bought a round trip ticket with cash. It only cost about $150. In 2007, I flew through Cancun, but it was a similar circumstance, with cash."

Hoffman said he was more than a bit nervous when he approached security in Havana.

"But there wasn't any problem at all. They were like, 'Come on in. Coming to Cuba is an American problem.' But don't get me wrong. I didn't volunteer that I had traveled to Cuba when I came home. I told them that I had spent my time in Mexico. That's pretty much what everyone says."

There are few, if any, gaps between social strata.

"It really doesn't matter who they are," remembered Hoffman. "The man who drives the bus pretty much goes home to the same type of existence as a doctor. They live the same lives and eat the same food. Everybody's poor."

Juan Serrano remembers the poverty. He grew up in Santa Clara in central Cuba, home to a mausoleum that houses the remains of Che Guevara, "El Gran Hotel" (a run-down former Hilton) and Estadio Augusto Cesar Sandino, a baseball stadium and Cuba's field of dreams. Serrano had a dream of his own: playing at the stadium. He even dared to dream about playing baseball in America. But dreams can be costly. A visit from a baseball scout from the Dominican Republic landed Serrano in Cuban jail for three days. But that seems a lifetime ago to the 22-year-old pitcher.

"Es imposible para mi volver."

"He said it's impossible for him to go back," Serrano's translator told BW.

On an early September afternoon, we sat about 2,400 miles from Serrano's homeland, in the dugout of the Hawks Memorial Stadium in Boise. We were joined by Ricardo Medina, Hawks' hitting coach and Serrano's interpreter. We talked about Serrano's new Idaho home, his family and baseball.

"Tenia seis anos de edad."

Serrano said he was 6 when he first picked up a baseball. He played in alleys and sand lots, and after spending time behind bars for simply thinking about playing in America, he made up his mind. In February 2009, Serrano and his girlfriend, Lisandra Rodriguez, packed into a speedboat with 27 others and faced massive waves for the better part of 24 hours before reaching the shores of Miami.

They were beneficiaries of the better half of the U.S. "wet-foot, dry-foot" policy. Simply put, if a Cuban refugee is caught while still in water (even a few feet from shore) they are returned to their homeland. If they set foot on American soil, they are allowed to pursue residency. Rodriguez went the traditional route: obtaining a green card and inching her way toward U.S. citizenship (she was a medical student when she left Cuba). Serrano made a more circuitous journey, opting to declare Dominican Republic citizenship in order to play in the D.R. and obtain a showcase tryout for the Chicago Cubs. In a matter of months, the Cubs signed Serrano. Neither he nor his agent will say for how much, but ESPN reports it was for $250,000.

But Serrano still needs to make his way from Boise to the majors. I asked him to rank his best pitches.

"Bola rapida, deslizador, cambio de velocidad, curva." That's fastball (he's been clocked as high as 93 mph), slider, changeup and his breaking curveball.

I gave my Spanglish a try.

"Bueno que eres?" Translation: "How good are you?"

"Suficientemente bueno para estar aqui." Translation: "I'm good enough to be here."

"Su familia sabe que estas hacienda?" Translation: "Does your family know how well you're doing?"

A long pause. His translator gave me a slight nod to give Serrano some time to think.

"Hablamos un poco." Translation: "We talk a little."

Serrano hopes to bring his family to America someday. That would include his mother, father, grandparents, two brothers and one sister.

Serrano looked out on the perfect baseball diamond that he would command in a couple of hours when he took the pitcher's mound. His slight grin broadened to a huge smile.

"Algun dia pronto."

Someday soon.