From his perspective as a retired international export executive, Leonard Goldstein is applauding President Barack Obama’s efforts to normalize relations with Cuba.
"I’ve always been interested in what was going on," Goldstein said from the small, crowded office he maintains in downtown Fort Wayne’s Lincoln Tower. "I felt that our foreign policy was wrong and hoped that it would change."
Goldstein is writing a short history of Cuba, a history most people don’t understand, he said.
His first experience there in the early ’60s is the stuff of a Graham Greene novel. Not so much the Russian spy stuff – well, who knows? – as the feeling of old Havana, the legendary city of big bands and cigars, white hats and gardenias, beautiful couples dancing in elegant hotels.
He went to Cuba attempting to collect money owed to Platka Export, an international division of Dana Corp. His agent, Armando, decided one evening to take him to a baseball game.
"After the game, he was driving me back to the hotel. We stopped at a red light. He looked up at a cafe and said, ‘I’ll bet Fidel Castro is there.’" The parking lot was packed, he recalled.
They sat down with one of his agent’s friends, the mayor of Havana.
"After a drink or two, he asked me if I would like to meet Fidel, and sure enough, Castro was in the hotel."
Goldstein told Castro he was there to collect money, and Castro assured him he would get it.
"This was a highly charismatic man, a tremendous personality. He was traveling from table to table, telling jokes interspersed with some serious political commentary," Goldstein said. Castro spoke to Goldstein in Spanish, and he thinks he used both his native English and Spanish he had learned in college, at Berlitz language schools and traveling in Latin America.
The next day, Goldstein passed Che Guevara, one of Castro’s partners in the revolution and an iconic symbol of activism, on the street.
Goldstein was able to get partial payment for the goods, mostly automotive parts. "People were stopping exporting to Cuba," Goldstein said. "Customers had paid, but the banks had not transferred the money."
He remembers being particularly surprised at the Hotel Nacional, at that point a luxurious wasteland.
"It had a casino in it, a beautiful ballroom. When I was there, I was the only occupant of the hotel. The casino was fully equipped with the croupiers and everything, and there was nobody there. It was empty," he said.
At the same time, thousands of upper-class Cubans were leaving the island nation for Miami.
"In the early days of the revolution, there were no restrictions. I think that Castro was glad to get rid of them because they would be the opposition," Goldstein said.
Goldstein opened up his own export business in the mid-1960s and traded with such places as Iran, Syria and Iraq as well as in Europe, South America, Asia and South Africa. He maintained offices in Brussels and Singapore.
"I think Paris is the most beautiful city in the world," Goldstein said, "but Hong Kong is the most exciting city in the world. The minute you get off the airplane, you can feel the excitement in the city."
A little more than 20 years ago, he sold the business, back before the U.S. traded with China or Russia.
Nowadays, Goldstein, 94, keeps an active interest in world affairs and travels to Puerto Rico for the month of February. His wife, Rikki, is a part-time social worker at the Neighborhood Health Clinic in downtown Fort Wayne.
They were part of an education mission in Cuba about 10 years ago and met with the U.S. presence there, which was just an office, not an embassy, he said.
The Goldsteins were surprised to find there were only 150 dissidents who were jailed.
The woman in charge told them that she had witnessed a meeting of opposition members at an open-air event. "Fidel showed up and when he arrived, this group of dissidents stood up and applauded him," she told him.
Castro was college-educated and a lawyer, "but he was also brutal at times, and that’s all people remember or they’ve ever learned," Goldstein said. Castro’s brother, Raul, now the titular head of Cuba, is different, and the brothers have mellowed, he thinks.
"There have been changes, and I think there will be more," he said. Trade won’t happen overnight, but "I think it will be a benefit to both countries."
The new U.S.-Cuba relationship is Vladimir Putin’s loss, according to Ann Livschiz, an IPFW associate professor in history specializing in the Soviet Union and Russia. Russia forgave $32 billion worth of old Cuban debt in July, but normalizing relations between Cuba and the U.S. "is a weakening of Russia’s foreign influence," she said.
"Cuba sort of turning itself toward the U.S. can be perceived as another failure of Putin’s foreign policy," Livschiz said.
"We do plenty of business with highly repressive regimes. If we’re trading with China, there’s no reason why we can’t have a more normal relationship with Cuba," she said.