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Paul Soglin and Fidel Castro

Madison Mayor Paul Soglin, right, met Fidel Castro twice. This time, the occasion was a reception during a U.S. Conference of Mayors visit to Cuba in 1978.

The liberal mayor of Wisconsin’s capital who is preparing a challenge to Republican Gov. Scott Walker defended giving a key to the city to former Cuban leader Fidel Castro, blasting Walker last week for making the 1975 move an early flashpoint in the race.

Madison Mayor Paul Soglin, 72, plans to officially join a crowded Democratic field of candidates this week. Walker, who ran for president in 2016, is up for re-election to a third term as governor in November.

Soglin, who protested against the Vietnam War as a UW-Madison student in the 1960s, was first elected mayor in 1973. He has been in the position off and on since then, serving a total of 20 years. He traveled to Cuba three times as mayor in the 1970s, meeting with Castro twice.

Walker last week tweeted an image of one of the meetings with the message: “Look how far Democrats have drifted to the left when one of their leading candidates for Governor in Wisconsin is a mayor who gave brutal Communist dictator Fidel Castro the keys to the city!”

Soglin, who has been a vocal critic of Walker’s, responded with a message saying the visits to Cuba taught him that “communication and understanding are a great way of making progress.” Soglin said he suspected Cuba would be interested in trading with Wisconsin for dairy equipment.

Walker went on to broaden his attacks, taking issue with Soglin’s record on fighting opioid abuse and economic development, signs of how seriously he sees a Soglin candidacy. Walker has not focused as much attention on most of the other Democratic candidates.

Soglin, in an interview, called Walker a “phony,” a “hypocrite” and a “fraud” for building ties with China as governor and leading a trade mission there in 2013 before taking a hard-line stance against its communist regime as a presidential candidate in 2015.

“I believe my record in regards to Cuba is far better than Scott Walker’s record on China,” Soglin said.

Soglin accused Walker of bringing up Castro to deflect from his own record as governor the past seven years, including deteriorating roads and a recent deal with Foxconn Technology Group that puts taxpayers on the hook for nearly $4 billion in tax breaks.

Soglin defended giving Castro a key to the city, calling it a routine diplomatic move. Over his time as mayor, Soglin has given a key to the city to both Republicans and Democrats, the mayor of Jerusalem and celebrities.

“What’s really important is when you get through the diplomatic process, do you address issues of substance?” Soglin said. “I was not afraid to tell our Cuban hosts that they face challenges in establishing credibility with us if they didn’t make changes in a democratic fashion — free elections, free press, not imprisoning political opponents, not imprisoning gays.”

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