Corrections to news stories are usually published at the bottom of an inside page, usually the second. Columnists, when they screw up, attach a correction to the bottom of a subsequent column. Let me dispense with that custom and put a correction right up top: in a recent piece involving the anniversary of the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba, I somehow managed to misspell the name of the president of the Arkansas Farm Bureau. Randy "Zeach," I wrote. Wrong, wrong, wrong — and I don't know how I got it wrong, especially since I double-checked the correct spelling — "Veach" — with a Veach aide. But get it wrong I did, and have personally apologized to Veach, and, here, to the reader. No excuses, and I'll try to do better.

Corrections to news stories are usually published at the bottom of an inside page, usually the second. Columnists, when they screw up, attach a correction to the bottom of a subsequent column. Let me dispense with that custom and put a correction right up top: in a recent piece involving the anniversary of the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba, I somehow managed to misspell the name of the president of the Arkansas Farm Bureau. Randy “Zeach,” I wrote. Wrong, wrong, wrong — and I don’t know how I got it wrong, especially since I double-checked the correct spelling — “Veach” — with a Veach aide. But get it wrong I did, and have personally apologized to Veach, and, here, to the reader. No excuses, and I’ll try to do better.

My mistake, however, allows me to back into some further musings on the subject, courtesy of my old friend Harvey Joe Sanner, political and farm activist, Delta economic development advocate and world traveler. At least, the 43,000 square miles that is Cuba. Harvey Joe wasn’t the first to bring to my attention my egregious misspelling of Veach’s name, but he was the most playful. And he reminded me that he had some hands-on experience with the Cuba trade issue, not to mention some mano-a-mano with none other than El Presidente, Fidel Castro.

Knowing quite well that Harvey Joe was a principal spokesman for Arkansas farmers eager to peddle their rice to a rice-hungry Cuba but frustrated by the decades-old ban on commercial interchange, then-U.S. Rep. Bill Alexander’s office called him one day a quarter-century ago, wondering if he might like to join a State Department-authorized trip to the island country. “I don’t know,” Harvey Joe said. “How much is the airfare?”

“A foundation’s paying for it,” he was told.

Harvey Joe replied: “When do we leave?”

He and his party of bigwigs — Harvey Joe insists he was the only regular guy on the trip, though that’s my description, not his — had scarcely arrived at their Havana hotel that warm October night when a Cuban attaché appeared, informing them that the president would see them at once. Castro is a notorious night owl: the meeting began at 10:45 and ended at 3:45. Much of that time, Harvey Joe says, he was embarrassed, not for himself, but for his U.S. companions — foundation executives, former members of Congress, wealthy industrialists, lobbyists. Embarrassed because “I was just a dirt farmer” and —

And Castro evidently had never met an American dirt farmer and was fascinated by one, essentially ignoring the American swells from New York and Washington and Los Angeles to converse, through a translator, with Harvey Joe Sanner of Des Arc, Arkansas. Fidel wanted to know how many acres his visitor farmed, and his expected yield per acre. Did he need to use herbicides, pesticides? How often? What kind? How much?

“At one point Castro started making these circles at his head with his finger, you know, like — I’m crazy, or he’s crazy,” Harvey Joe says. The translator stepped in. “He needs to re-set, to re-set,” the bi-lingual explained; El Presidente needed to convert acres to hectares, bushels to kilos, gallons to liters. “Oh.”

Harvey Joe & Co. thought that was the end of it. But three nights later came word that Castro, who hated greeting delegations even one time and almost never saw them twice, wanted to see this one again. A little reception at the presidential palace. “I put on a tie,” Harvey Joe says.

Rice was on the buffet, he remembers. So was lobster and shrimp. Too, a roasted pig — “About 40 pounds, I’d say.” And booze, all the bottles labeled in Spanish. Was the embargo working? Or was Fidel trying to make a point?

Anyway. Same as before: Castro more or less ignored the bespoke suits and resumed chatting up Harvey Joe of Des Arc, who, at one point, was nearly floored: “Castro had done some figuring, based on what I’d told him about my farm. He told me what it would gross that year. And, you know, he was just about on target!”

Stuffed, sated and fascinated, the American party was taking its leave of Castro — or, more likely, Castro had signaled the evening was ending — the host had a proposition for Harvey Joe. “He wanted me to come back to Cuba so he could put me on Cuban television, show Cuban farmers what an American farmer was like.”

It hasn’t happened. Yet.

• • •

Steve Barnes is a native of Pine Bluff.