HAVANA--"Would you consider those 'cowboy' boots?" a pleasant, British-accented Reuters correspondent asked me in the lobby of the Hotel Nacional. We were nearing the end of Idaho Gov. C. L. "Butch" Otter's recent Cuba trip.
"And what's on his belt buckle?"
Otter's image extends south from Miami, and across the ideological spectrum to this vibrant, multi-hued, communist-run island. El Jefe, President Fidel Castro, who met with Otter on three prior trips, calls the former congressman his "vaquero," or cowboy.
Castro also has a fondness for Sen. Larry Craig's wife Suzanne, whom, during a previous Idaho-led junket to the island, he regaled for hours with information about the benefits of yoga and the minutiae of school nutrition.
Otter hoped to meet with Castro on his now-completed visit here, but did not. He wanted, in part, to find out if the aging leader had implemented any of Suzanne Craig's recommendations for bolstering the nutritional value of the bread served in Cuban schools.
Castro, who is known to enjoy long conversations with visiting dignitaries, has made no public appearances for eight months since falling ill with an apparent intestinal condition, the exact nature of which remains a state secret.
For a while it looked like Otter's visit to Cuba would remain a state secret as well.
As plans for the Idaho trade mission coalesced, the governor's office, on advice from someone official in Washington or Miami, informed news outlets, including BW, that Cuba was not letting journalists in.
Most Americans are under the impression that this island is closed off to them because of an oppressive and secretive dictatorial regime that runs it. Whatever you think of the Cuban political system, the truth is that the only thing keeping most Americans from visiting Cuba for study, business or vacation is the American government.
Otter sums it up nicely: "It wasn't until I became a member of Congress that I finally realized that it wasn't a law of Cuba against United States citizens, it was the United States government against United States citizens," Otter told me last week on a tour bus en route to Hemingway's old house east of Havana. "To just come out ... and say, 'Look, you're not going to get to go there,' I think is wrong."
Though Otter's office did not seem eager for press scrutiny of his Cuba trip, I decided I'd try to get down here anyway.
Most Americans are more than welcome in Cuba for vacationing, if they are willing to risk severe fines from the U.S. Treasury Department. But the Cubans do pick and choose who gets to report on their country. They have recently yanked press credentials from several key foreign correspondents here for their perceived negative coverage.
That's a damn shame, but it is only a shade-of-gray difference from the way the Bush administration manages the Washington press corps. Or even the Otter administration, which prefers not to "work things out through the press."
The Cuban government has signaled that it is tired of speculative stories by American reporters about Castro's health and the future governance of the island. There is really not much talk here about Castro's health, and Cubans do not expect big changes in governance any time soon.
I had snuck in here before as a tourist and published a story about Cuba. But I thought I would try to get credentialed anyway and hoped they weren't pissed about my previous visit.
The new press attache at the Cuban Interest Section in Washington, D.C., which would be an embassy if America had diplomatic relations with the island, said no problemo.
As long as it was OK with Otter, that is. The Cuban "ambassador" apparently asked Otter if I was invited, and he didn't say no. So I quickly arranged to arrive in Cuba ahead of the 35-Idahoan group. But, thanks again to the U.S. embargo, this is not so easy.
Try to book a ticket to Havana on Expedia or Orbitz and you get a spooky error message. Something along the lines of: "Sorry, that flight is not available. Please check your e-mail for a message from the U.S. Attorney General."
U.S. airlines and any foreign airline selling tickets in the U.S. are barred from talking about Cuba. They won't even give you flight times. I tried to contact a travel agency in Mexico City that had reserved tickets to Havana for me before, but could not get through. I called Mexicana Air in Canada, but the call center was in the United States, and the nervous-sounding guy told me to call the Cuban Interest Section for information.
I eventually reached a Mexicana Airlines agent in Cancun, who reserved a flight for me with just a name. I was nervous about putting a ticket to Havana on my credit card.
So, I arrived in Cancun with a wad of cash, bought my tickets to Havana, killed a few hours in the airport and landed without a hitch.
The next morning, I sat on an overstuffed sofa in the lobby of the Hotel Nacional, dressed in my blue guayabera from Caldwell, waiting for the bus to arrive.
And there they were. In black polo shirts and "Butch Otter" caps, a bit frazzled and unsure of themselves, the delegation of farmers, academics, salespeople, state workers and one humanitarian from Nampa filed into the lobby.
I approached Laura Johnson from the Idaho State Department of Agriculture delicately. She seemed a bit harried.
She had no information for me. No comment. The rest of the delegation eyed me suspiciously, eager to get to their rooms. One young woman, whom I didn't recognize, said, "I'm not supposed to talk to you, go away."
I stuck to the group anyway, eager to see how these Red State farmers fared in a truly red state.
Otter's office spun the trip as a trade mission.
"He's going down there to sell groceries," Otter's spokesman Jon Hanian, told the Associated Press. "It isn't to be adventurous. It's an opportunity to make some sales."
But most members of the delegation quickly realized that it was not going to be that straightfoward. In fact, almost half the group had nothing to sell; they were state workers and academics. There were some trade discussions the first day, when representatives of Idaho's meat, dairy, grain and health products industries met with their counterparts in Alimport, the Cuban food import arm.
Cuba does need food. The last time I was here, in 2004, my wife and I craved something besides bread and pork after three days of stale toast and the other white meat. Restaurants here are frequently out of menu items. The potato harvest this year--a major staple in Cuba--is down 30 percent.
Cuba needs more milk as well, but Idaho's dairy industry cannot even produce enough powdered products to meet current demand, something Idaho Dairyman's Association director Bob Naerebout could have possibly discovered by phone from Boise before coming down here.
But there is something to be said for making a showing.
"You've got to figure out how business is done locally," said Bruce Kusch, a BYU Idaho business professor who joined the delegation.
A few members of the group, including retired Idaho House speaker Bruce Newcomb, who was selling beef for his son-in-law at AB Foods, and Ed LeVasseur of Mako Marketing, had lengthy trade talks.
LeVasseur plans to export some meat, fish and juice to Cuba, but they are not Idaho products, and he did not expect the shipment to be ready for months.
Seed producers told the Cubans what they could provide, but left with no agreements.
The Cuban media was shocked that Otter did not promote the trip more with a dramatic airstrip press conference, as most trade delegations do.
I explained to them that he does not have press conferences at home either. That his advisers tell the press to just grab him in the hall.
As they realized that the barriers to trade were high and the process was just beginning, members of the delegation started describing their mission as "fact finding" rather than "trade."
They were given briefings on Cuban tourism, farming and health care and shown around Havana.
The first afternoon, I teamed up with a Spanish reporter and photographer and we managed to talk our way into a meeting with the Cuban tourism agency.
The Idaho delegation learned that Cuba imports about $45 worth of food for every American tourist that visits, part of a potential half a billion dollars that could be spent if our embargo on visiting the island is ever lifted.
Of course, the Idahoans probably ate more than their $45-worth here ... though they thought they may have been served horse meat at one state dinner, there was plenty of lobster, giant shrimp, steak and liquor to go around.
So why did Otter really come down here, his first international trip as governor?
Food sales to the island are part of it. But Otter, who has been an opponent of U.S. Cuba policy since he was first elected to Congress, intends to use his position in Idaho to continue to fight the embargo.
The more people that understand his view of U.S.-Cuba relations, the more "on the ground" stories, the better chance of breaking the embargo, Otter said as he left for the airport.
"Understanding the situation helps those of us who believe that we're far too stringent in a policy that has never, ever produced anything positive," he said.