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Vicki Huddleston, former chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Cuba for three years, gestures Tuesday afternoon while speaking to a class of Big Sky High School students on the changing U.S.-Cuba relations. “There’s a lot of gray in any relationship,” Huddleston says, “but certainly in the one between the United States and Cuba.”

Vicki Huddleston – who from 1999 to 2002 served as chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, the closest thing America had to an embassy there – vividly recalls one of her personal encounters with longtime Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

She was attending a formal dinner in 1989 to celebrate one of Cuba’s successful military interventions in Africa when Castro entered the room. Huddleston was serving as director of Cuban affairs at the U.S. State Department at the time, and Castro wandered over to a table where she was sitting with a group of men.

Castro was greeted first by a man who was taller than he was.

“He didn’t like that he was smaller,” the retired diplomat recalled at Big Sky High School on Tuesday. “So he looked around the table at our delegation and saw me. And he knew who I was because I had been there many times. But he asked, ‘Who are you, somebody’s spouse?’ And I got up and said, ‘No, I’m the director of Cuban affairs!’ So, Castro kind of looked around the room and waits until everybody is looking and listening and then he says, ‘Oh, I thought I was!’"

Huddleston spoke to a Big Sky Spanish class as part of the Montana World Affairs Council’s “Spotlight on Cuba” program, which is meant to connect local students and citizens with the outside world.

While her story got a laugh from the students, it was just one anecdote from her long career in foreign affairs.

She has served as U.S. ambassador to Mali and Madagascar, as well as acting ambassador in Ethiopia and deputy assistant secretary of defense for Africa. She has received the State Department’s Distinguished Honor Award and a Presidential Meritorious Service Award. She has co-written a book on U.S. Cuban relations, and has authored opinion pieces for the New York Times, the Miami Herald and the Washington Post.

“After that, Castro and I had a conversation and he complained about the embargo and essentially his fear that we would tighten the embargo,” Huddleston said, referring to commercial, financial and economic sanctions the U.S. imposed on Cuba in 1960 following Castro’s communist revolution and nationalization of U.S.-owned oil refineries.

Huddleston participated in a wide-ranging question-and-answer session with the Big Sky students, giving them a short history of America’s relationship with Cuba and how it is at a turning point since President Barack Obama has tried to normalize those ties by executive order.

She also explained how taxi drivers make more money than many doctors there, and how ordinary Cubans want to go to Miami in search of a better life but government workers are more loyal to the status quo.

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Aubrie Lyons, executive director of the Montana World Affairs Council, said Huddleston’s visit was part of the nonprofit organization's Distinguished Speakers Program.

“We bring in diplomats, dignitaries and global experts to speak to the community,” Lyons explained. “We’re a nonpartisan organization, so we value having a guest and being able to have important dialogue from all sides and all points of view."

On Monday morning, Huddleston spoke via videoconference to more than 100 students in rural communities across the state such as Darby and Deer Lodge.

“It would have taken us like 18 hours to drive to those communities,” Lyons said. “So we were able to connect these students with the ambassador and they had opportunities to engage with her and ask questions and learn from her. They asked really great questions. Rural outreach is so important in Montana because otherwise they wouldn’t have the chance to meet someone like the ambassador and connect with those issues."

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Huddleston said young people in America have a high level of interest in the island nation just 90 miles off the Florida coast, which has been closed to general U.S. tourists and businesses for nearly six decades.

“They really had great questions,” she said of the students. “I think there is a perception that it’s this communist island out there that nobody knows anything about, there’s no relationship with. And, of course, we’ve had a relationship with Cuba since 1977 when Jimmy Carter reopened the Embassy and the Interests Section, and we’ve actually been the biggest diplomatic presence in Cuba. So it isn’t like it’s isolated.”

Huddleston said Americans have many misconceptions about Cuba because it is so cut off.

“I think there’s a general problem that people have,” she said. “It’s gray. People want to say, ‘Oh, the embargo is terrible,’ and at the same time say, ‘Well, that means the Cuban government must be great.’ Well the embargo might be terrible, but the Cuban government isn’t so great. It isn’t one side or the other, there’s a lot of gray in any relationship, but certainly in the one between the United States and Cuba. Certainly, we’ve done a lot of things to Cuba that infringe on their sovereignty and aren’t so nice, but on the other hand Cuba’s relationship with the Soviet Union was a threat and every country has a right to protect itself from threats.”

For more information about the Montana World Affairs Council's Distinguished Speakers Program, visit montanaworldaffairs.org.

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