Insight: Raul Castro and the U.S. Secret Service

Amid the fuss about the handshake today between Barack Obama and Raul Castro at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service, I recalled how the Cuban leader once surprised me: He showed his admiration for the U.S. Secret Service.

The Carters and Raul Castro walking through Old Havana in March 2011. Photo by Eason Jordan.

During former president Jimmy Carter’s March 2011 Cuba trip, before I learned of Castro’s fondness for the Secret Service, Carter introduced me to Castro, who said he knew me as “the CNN guy.” Castro asked me whether I still worked at CNN. When I said no, Castro said, “That’s good because CNN has gotten much worse.”

During their discussions, Carter pressed Castro on a sensitive issue, prompting Castro to respond by saying if he agreed to Carter’s request, Castro would need Carter’s Secret Service bodyguards to protect him from the wrath of Cubans who’d be furious with Castro for relenting. Castro then rejected Carter’s plea.

But the big surprise came at the Havana airport immediately after Castro said goodbye to Carter, walking him to the steps of a private jet. With Carter on the plane preparing to taxi for takeoff, and with more than a dozen U.S. Secret Service agents remaining on the ground at the airport, Castro stunned the Secret Service agents by walking over to them, shaking their hands and thanking each and every one of them. It was a gracious, surprising gesture that some of the agents told me was exceptionally rare for a world leader.

At one point during Carter’s visit, the Carters and Castro walked for several blocks through old Havana – the first time in decades Castro had done so. During the stroll, I got a close-up look at Castro’s security detail. Unlike Fidel Castro’s bodyguards, who I saw during my many meetings with him and who were old school and usually wore military uniforms, Raul Castro’s bodyguards were young, smartly-dressed and had Secret Service-style radio earpieces. Clearly Raul Castro’s admiration for the U.S. Secret Service prompted him to transform his bodyguards into Secret Service look-alikes.

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