Since Artful Living last sat down for a long chat with Jesse Ventura four years ago, he’s made headlines for filing and winning a defamation suit against the author and publisher of American Sniper, the book in which the late Chris Kyle claimed he’d decked the Body during a bar fight for saying Navy SEALS “deserve to lose a few.” His Internet show featuring great conspiracies, Off The Grid, is going strong. He still doesn’t fly commercially to protest what he considers illegal searches by airport security personnel. And as we learned when we met with him most recently, the oft-quoted, always-outspoken Ventura has lots to say about the thawing of U.S.-Cuba relations.
Let’s talk about Mexico.
Mexico is an adventure. I got out of office, I taught at Harvard in ’04, and when I was done at Harvard, I felt I was young enough and [in good enough] financial shape at my age that the window of opportunity for adventure was closing.
Had you spent a lot of time in Mexico prior to that?
No. I vacationed there twice right after I got out of office and the year I left Harvard. And it was the year after Harvard that I found my home down there. And that was why I went down there. I rented a car and put, like, 1,800 kilometers on it in about 10 days. I always wanted to retire to the ocean, and at first I wanted Hawaii. And then the Baja came up, and I found the Baja more attractive because, No. 1, it’s far less expensive than Hawaii, and, No. 2, it gives you double option, which I’m happy for.
I can drive there, which is what I do. So when I ceased flying, it had no bearing on going to Mexico, because I’d been driving it six years anyway. I’ve driven the Baja four or five times, up and down the entire length of it.
And how off the grid are you?
I’m way off the grid. I’m an hour from pavement and an hour from electricity. My house is solar. The sun generates my electricity — the sun of which I worship today. I follow the teachings of George Carlin. He was an atheist who worshipped the sun. He said, I worship the sun, because the sun brings me everything I need. It brings me heat, it grows my food, it brings me light. And you know what it does most of all? (I’m paraphrasing him.) Every morning it comes up, and I can see it. That gives it great credibility, that it exists.
Let’s talk about travel. In 2011, a lawsuit you filed contesting the right of the government to make passengers submit to a body scanner or physical pat-down was dismissed by a federal judge. You said you wouldn’t fly commercially. Still true?
Yes. I will not go somewhere that treats me like a criminal. And in the airports of the United States of America today — I can’t answer for anyone but myself — I am treated like a criminal.
So you’re driving everywhere?
Driving, taking the train.
Will you fly in private planes?
Sure. You’re not checked private. But private is very expensive. But this is a constitutional issue. I sued under the Fourth Amendment, and a federal judge says she doesn’t have jurisdiction? Who does, then? No one.
So what should that tell you? At airports, you are not protected by the Constitution or the Bill of Rights. You’re on your own. You have no place to get redress, no place to seek relief if they abuse you. You have to just take it.
And it begs the bigger question: Why is it the government’s job to provide security for the airlines when they’re a private-sector business? Why shouldn’t they provide their own security?
They don’t want to spend the money, and some airports are city- or state-owned. So are football stadiums. When you go to Timberwolves games, does the government provide security? No — it’s private.
How come the airlines get a pass? If the airlines did their own security, then I could have a relationship with Delta Air Lines and they’d know Gov. Jesse Ventura poses no threat when he shows his passport. He’s flown for millions of miles. He’s a former mayor, a former governor, an honorably discharged U.S. veteran.
Did you know when John Boehner was speaker of the House, he wasn’t subjected to searches at airports?
How is he any more patriotic that me? I spent six years with the Underwater Demolition SEAL Team, the most elite unit in the U.S. Navy. John Boehner spent seven weeks at boot camp and got a medical discharge. Six years to seven weeks, and yet they consider him more patriotic that me.
You must be feeling pretty good about establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba. I feel tremendous about it. I went down there in ’02 at the end of my term as governor, and I realized long before that, but it reassured me when I got there that the United States of America was being the bad guy.
You went down as part of a medical —
It was a medical and agriculture trade trip.
What made you believe then that the regime was benign enough that we should have diplomatic relations with Cuba? Because they never did anything to us. What has Cuba ever done to us? Yet we have practiced terrorism — and I use the world “terrorism” — against them for decades.
I got thrown off Fox News for saying that. I said, “Why is everyone in the United States so astounded that the terrorists would attack us when we’ve been practicing terrorism for 50 years?” And the guy at Fox got all indignant with me and said, “Well, how can you say that — give me an example of the U.S. practicing terrorism.”
I said, “Cuba. We’ve burned their cane fields, we’ve attempted to destroy their economy, we’ve blown up ships in their harbor, we’ve attempted to assassinate their president on multiple occasions. Those are not acts of terrorism? If they were done to us, we’d call it terrorism.”
And are you familiar with this character Orlando Bosch? Familiarize yourself with him. Because he blew up a Cuban jetliner with 73 innocent civilians onboard, and George Bush Sr. pardoned him. He walked free. Is that not terrorism — blowing up a plane? Seems to me we should know that’s an act of terrorism, and he did it long before 9/11 occurred.
Let me play devil’s advocate. I read some of your interviews, and you did not seem to acknowledge that Castro, or at least his regime, has tortured prisoners. So have we, so we’re no better. Yes, Castro made a mistake. Or at least that’s what they tell us — that he tortured people. But let’s remember something: Castro led a revolution. And unless you’re walking in his shoes, if there’s anyone who commits treason during a revolution, you can be sure that’s the death penalty. You’re talking about a situation where loyalty is of the utmost.
Who are we to point a finger at torture after Abu Ghraib, after Guantanamo? We even keep our tortured persons right in Cuba. And what right do we have to have a base in Cuba?
We have a treaty with —
All right, Hugo Chávez — he had lots of money. How would we feel if he bought up 500 acres in the Palm Springs desert and moved his army into there? Would we allow it? Hell no. So where do we get off having bases in all these foreign countries when we would never allow another military to have a base in our country? Who made us the policeman of the world?
GTMO should be closed immediately. In fact, Obama took away one of the things I would have done if I became president, which is opening up relations with Cuba. But I would take it one step further: I’d personally call Fidel and tell him, Within one year, you’ll get GTMO back. It’s your country, it’s your land. I don’t give a damn about some treaty of 100 years ago or 200 years ago or whatever it was.
What was it about Fidel that so impressed you when you met him?
He looked me eye to eye. He had the most unique handshake. He kind of winds up with it and thrusts it down. I mean it was very unique. And he looked me in the eye and he said, “You are a man of great courage.”
And I looked at him and called him Mr. President — because he does have elections; it’s just that he’s the only candidate. And I said, “Well, Mr. President, how can you say that — you don’t know me.” And he said, “Because you defied your president to come here.” And I kind of laughed and said, “You’ll find I defy most everything.” And he started laughing.
It wasn’t clear how much time you spent with him. An hour. It was in this place where we were having meetings, in a side room. And I was debriefed by the CIA when I returned.
Interesting side story. When 9/11 happened, I called the same CIA guy who was my connection [when I was governor]. I asked him what had happened and what I needed to know. A year later, I had a chance to talk with him again, and he said to me, “I found it very interesting that you were the only governor out of all 50 who bothered to call me after 9/11 to find out what I knew.”
And I said, “Well, I’m the only governor who would have the knowledge to call you. I’m a former Navy SEAL, and I know the first thing you do is contact your intelligence contacts to find out what you need to know. That’s trained into us.”
And so I’d had a relationship with him already. In fact, I still carry his card. I figure it’s a good card to have, especially the way I’m treated now. And they asked the typical questions: What did Castro’s health seem like, was he coherent, and this and that. And I answered them all honestly.
And would you like a behind-the-scenes story?
When I was in Cuba, Castro assigned me three of his personal bodyguards plus an interpreter, and I had my two guys from here, Ron and Tony. So I had this entourage everywhere I went. The last night in Cuba, as I did on all trade missions, be it China, Mexico or Germany, I like to go out on the town. I want to stay out as late as I can, get as tired as I can so I can get some sleep on the early flight the next morning.
So my last night there, I turned to my three Cuban bodyguards and said, “Well, gentlemen, it’s my last night here. It’s time for some fun. Show me Havana.” And they looked at me puzzled and asked, “Where would you want to go?” And I said, “I don’t know; it’s your city.”
So they took me to the famous Tropicana. It’s a variety show, much like you’d get in Vegas. No nudity. They do have beautiful girls who come out and dance in their feathered native stuff. They have comedians, dinner. And as the night went on, someone came over and whispered something to one of my Cuban bodyguards, who told my bodyguard, who told me, “The CIA has you under surveillance, and the Cubans want to know if you want to lose them.”
And I thought, How ironic. Here I am in Cuba, and the Cubans are volunteering to get me away from the CIA so I won’t be under surveillance. I said, “No, we’re not doing nothing wrong. Let them watch as much as they want.” And then we continued with the night. We went to a second place, and maybe they did evade them, because they did take a strange route. I don’t know.
But getting back to the CIA debriefing, when they were all done with me that day, they said, “Well, Governor, thank you, we appreciate your help and all your candid answers.” And I said, “Are you done?” And they said, “Yup.” And I said, “Are you sure there’s nothing you want to tell me?” They said no, so I said, “There’s something I want to tell you. I’ll leave this to your discretion; you take this where you think it needs to go. Here’s my message: If you ever, ever put a tail on me again and you do not tell me, you’re gonna find your tail floating in the river.” What do you think: Did that get to Cheney and Bush? Or did it just make it to [CIA Director] Tenet?
Why do you think Bush didn’t want you to visit Cuba?
Because they want you to believe the propaganda they put out on Cuba. I learned the Cuban people love the American people; they just despise our government. And I told the CIA, If you think there’s going to be a revolution, and the people are going to rise up and overthrow Castro, you’re holding your breath for nothing. I said, Those people are not going to let us win. They have too much pride; they love their country too much. And even the ones who don’t like Fidel aren’t going to do it, because that would look like the United States would control their destiny.
How did it come down that the president didn’t want you to visit Cuba?
I just got a message that he wished I wouldn’t from the State Department. One guy made the statement that he hoped the governor and his entourage weren’t going down there to sample the sex trade. That was the State Department’s main man to the western hemisphere. I demanded a complete apology to me and everyone who went with me.
When I returned, I had a press conference and said, “Well, I didn’t see any sex-trade industry when I was there, but perhaps next time we go we’ll bring him with us, because he obviously knows where it’s at.”
What would you say to folks, particularly in the Cuban community in Miami, about Obama’s opening up Cuba?
I say to them, Relax. Wouldn’t you rather be able to go to Cuba freely? See your relatives, see the people who are there and open the country up? If the Cubans in southern Florida are under the illusion that they’re going to overthrow that government, well, it might happen in their great grandchildren’s lives, but they’re not going to be alive to see it.
I’ll tell you how bad it is. When Katrina hit, Castro offered 100 doctors for free, and we turned him down. What an olive branch! Who knows more about hurricanes than Cuba? And they have the best medical talent of any country in that part of the world. We turned him down? I’d say we looked pretty bad there. And if that’s our foreign policy, we need to change it.
Are you familiar with the Gallup poll earlier this year in which 3,000 people around the world were asked, “If you were to go to war against another country, who would that be?” 23% said the United States. Second was Pakistan with 9, third was China with 6. I hang my head in shame as a veteran over that. I hang my head in shame that the rest of the world now looks at the U.S. as the military aggressor of the world.
Will you go back to Cuba?
Fidel invited me and my family to come back as his guests. I did talk to Robert F. Kennedy Jr., and he just got back, and he said he had an audience with Fidel, and he said Fidel is 89 and smart as a whip. He said his children were there, and Castro spoke to them for an hour about the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis, everything — educating Robert Kennedy’s kids about what went on in the turbulent sixties. And Robert told me, You should go back down.
I said on my Internet show that I’d break my personal ban on flying to go to Cuba. But I want to be able to see Fidel because I think we became friends that day.
When I was getting out of office here and I wasn’t seeking a second term, I got a message to go to the governor’s residence instead of my house. And I wanted to know why; it was Friday and I wanted to go home. And my chief of staff kind of whispered to me, “Cuba.”
A guy showed up from the Swiss embassy, and he said, “Cuba understands you’re not seeking reelection, but Cuba wants a message delivered.” And I gotta think this was straight from Fidel. The message was, “Just remember, Governor: A friend of Cuba will always be a friend of Cuba’s.”
I’d love to go back, but only if Castro would give me an audience again. Whether he would or not, I don’t know. But I’d like to sit down, and the only thing I’d say to him is, “Fidel, did you think the day would come where I could come to see you freely?”
I’d love to deliver that message to him because to me, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara are heroes — they are not how we make them appear to be. I’ve read four books on Che, and he and Muhammad Ali are my heroes. Especially Che.
Because he’s a bad boy?
No, because Che and I are very alike, because Che is a hero to the people. He may be a bad boy to the upper echelon, he may be a bad boy to the status quo, but here’s a man who believed in what he believed and had the conviction of what he did. When you see the documentary The Motorcycle Diaries, you understand how he developed his hatred for the United States while traveling through South America.
He saw indigenous people who lived on their land for hundreds of years get thrown off their land because a corporation — the United Fruit Company at that time — came in, paid off the government, threw the people off the land and offered these people pennies to work. They were almost like indentured slaves, and that’s where Che developed his hatred.
And then we can transition to the great Major Gen. Smedley Butler, a two-time Medal of Honor winner and marine who wrote the book War Is a Racket. He served a hundred years ago in what they called the Banana Wars, and he said, “I didn’t serve the American people; I served the United Fruit Company.” Whenever they’d go into Central or South America, if they didn’t get cooperation, they’d send the marines in to get it.
Sound familiar? Could you switch “fruit” to “oil?” Today, our military is serving major corporations, providing them what they need in terms of resources. Why do you think we hated Hugo Chávez so bad? Because he nationalized the oil in Venezuela. He said, Wait a minute; these are the natural resources of the people of Venezuela.
Our government — we are fascists today. And I get in trouble when I say it, but what is fascism? Fascism is when corporate takes over the government. And that’s what we now have here, because corporations can donate to our candidates. The corporations elect our president, not you.
How does your wife fit into the Jesse program? Is she cool with Mexico, cool with you having no cell phone and not flying?
Absolutely. She married me 36 years ago. I was eccentric then, she knew what she was getting and she’s been along for the ride. And I think if you asked her, she wouldn’t regret one minute of it.
Do you look back and regret anything?
Isn’t it tough to look back at 64 and not regret anything?
No, because there’s nothing you can do about it. So why would you regret something you have no control over anymore? It’s water under the bridge.