- Associated Press - Monday, November 28, 2016

PORTLAND, Maine (AP) - Members of a Maine agricultural trade mission who met late Cuban leader Fidel Castro in 2005 will likely never forget the communist leader.

Castro, who was 80 at the time, wore his gym clothes to a last-minute meeting in which he engaged in a lengthy discussion about artificial insemination in cattle, former Gov. John Baldacci said. The Down East accent earned a quizzical look from Castro.

“I’m sitting back thinking this could be a scene from Saturday Night Live,’” Baldacci said Monday. “It was surreal.”

The island nation is in the midst of weeklong memorial services that began on Monday in Havana. Castro died Friday night at 90.

Baldacci said he had mixed emotions about meeting Castro, who he said was responsible for “reprehensible, atrocious and tragic actions.” But the meeting was good for Maine businesses.

The trade mission led to a commitment from Cuba to purchase $20 million of products likes potatoes, apples and dairy cows. The mission was made possible after the U.S. in 2000 eased a trade embargo to allow agricultural products to be sold to Cuba.

Members of the trade delegation weren’t guaranteed a meeting with Castro, who led a revolution that overthrew the government in 1959.

The group was given only about 10 minutes notice to meet in the lobby of the Hotel Nacional in Havana before being whisked away for the meeting, said Eddie Dugay, then a state lawmaker from Cherryfield.

Baldacci didn’t intend to stay for long, but ended up staying for the entire two-hour session. Castro joked that he’d delayed Baldacci’s flight, Dugay said.

Dugay wasn’t sure that it was a joke. Regardless, Baldacci said he left after the meeting and returned to Maine later that day as planned.

The trade delegation to Cuba was one of several by Maine agriculture officials. Maine Agriculture Commissioner Robert Spear was hospitalized with an infection on a trip a few months later, and returned to Maine praising the health care he received in Cuba.

Baldacci said a highlight for him was visiting the memorial for the battleship Maine, which exploded and sank in Havana Harbor in 1898 during the Cuban revolt against Spain.

As for Castro, Baldacci said he was not surprised that Castro wore athletic clothing to the meeting. Castro worked out every day at the gym to remain healthy.

“He wanted to outlive the Bush administration and he was determined to do that,” Baldacci said. “I suppose he was successful on that front.”

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