Sam Smith, 2008
IF there has been one constant in my journalistic life it has been Fidel Castro. Even Teddy Kennedy had just been admitted to the Massachusetts Bar when I covered Castro for the first and only time. And though I would never actually see him again, Fidel would ceaselessly reappear like some ghost of revolutions past, casting a mysterious and malicious spell on American politicians and journalists that caused them to act in strange and masochistic ways. I came to think that Fidel Castro's worst act was his ability to make American leaders speak and behave so stupidly. Given all the rotten dictators and international criminals we supported contentedly, I could never figure out why this man of such modest mischief should be held in such fear and contempt. I finally concluded that those claiming the title of "foreign policy expert" in Washington weren't all that smart after all and certainly not to be trusted.
It began in 1959, during Castro's victory visit to the United States which included coming to Harvard, where I was news director of the college radio station, WHRB.
The 32-year-old Castro spoke to 8,000 enthusiastic faculty and students (including one from Brandeis named Abbie Hoffman) at Dillon Field House. Castro was still considered a hero by many Americans for having overthrown the egregious Batista. While those of us who had taken Soc Sci 2 knew that not all revolutions were for the better, there was about this one a romance that took my thoughts far from Harvard Square as a top Castro lieutenant, sitting in front of my little portable tape recorder in a local eatery, told me of his days with Fidel in the mountains.
Castro was booed only once in his speech according to my broadcast report later that evening, when he "attempted to defend the execution of Cuban war criminals after the revolution. Castro asked his listeners, 'you want something else?' and proceed to give them a fifteen minute further explanation."
My story continued:
"Some of Castro's aides expressed a feeling of relaxation during the Harvard tour in comparison with the formal diplomatic visit to Washington. Leaving the faculty club, Castro's air attache was cheered for his nappy uniform by the students who surrounded the area. . . WHRB will rebroadcast Dr. Castro's speech on Monday at midnight. WHRB's recording of the event will also be broadcast by the Voice of America and Station CMQ in Havana."
I would later learn that I wasn't the only radio type who had run into Castro in 1959. Steve Allison was a talk show host at Washington's WWDC where I would soon work as a reporter, One night in April Allison was conducting his program as usual at Cores Restaurant, 1305 E St NW in DC, when the recently victorious Castro and his aides came in looking for something to eat without any idea that a radio program was underway. Castro had come to Washington to speak at the National Press Club, right around the corner from the restaurant.
Here is the tape of what happened next as reported on the program that followed. It is extraordinary:
In less than a year, all feeling of relaxation was gone. As the Militant reported in 1995, Castro "did not receive a warm welcome from the U.S. government during his visit to New York City in 1960. The Cuban delegation moved to Harlem after being kicked out of the Shelburne Hotel amid a racist slander campaign in the press that included baseless charges - repeated to this day by the Associated Press - of plucking live chickens at the hotel."
The man who arranged his welcome: Malcolm X. Castro would later recall, "I always remember when I met with Malcolm X at the Hotel Teresa, because he was the one who gave us support and made it possible for us to be accommodated there. We had two choices: one was the patio in the United Nations; when I told this to the Secretary General he was horrified at the thought of a delegation camping in tents there; and then we received Malcolm X's offer, he had talked to one of our comrades, and I said: 'That is the place, Hotel Teresa.' And there we went."
Ralph D Matthews covered the story for the New York Citizen-Call:
|||| To see Premier Fidel Castro after his arrival at Harlem's Hotel Theresa meant getting past a small army of New York City policemen guarding the building, past security officers, U.S. and Cuban. But one hour after the Cuban leader's arrival, Jimmy Booker of the Amsterdam News, photographer Carl Nesfield, and myself were huddled in the stormy petrel of the Caribbean's room listening to him trade ideas with Muslim leader Malcolm X. Dr. Castro did not want to be bothered with reporters from the daily newspapers, but he did consent to see two representatives from the Negro press. . .
We followed Malcolm and his aides, Joseph and John X, down the ninth-floor corridor. It was lined with photographers disgruntled because they had no glimpse of the bearded Castro, with writers vexed because security men kept pushing them back.
We brushed by them and, one by one, were admitted to Dr. Castro's suite. He rose and shook hands with each one of us in turn. He seemed in a fine mood. The rousing Harlem welcome still seemed to ring in his ears. . .
One can reasonably speculate that our relationship with Cuba might have been much better and happier if it had not started on such a sour note. The reason one can reasonably speculate that is because we have been far more willing to welcome some antagonistic leaders than others and in most cases it has worked to our benefit. Khrushchev, for example, visited the U.S. with much favorable publicity (although he was not allowed into Disneyland) the same year that Castro could find no room in New York City.
After introductions, he sat on the edge of the bed, bade Malcolm X sit beside him, and spoke in his curious brand of broken English. His first words were lost to us assembled around him. But Malcolm heard him and answered: "Downtown for you it was ice. Uptown it is warm." The premier smiled appreciatively. "Aahh yes. We feel here very warm."
Then the Muslim leader, ever a militant, said, "I think you will find the people in Harlem are not so addicted to the propaganda they put out downtown." In halting English, Dr. Castro said, "I admire this. I have seen how it is possible for propaganda to make changes in people. Your people live here and they are faced with this propaganda all the time and yet they understand. This is very interesting."
"There are twenty million of us," said Malcolm X, "and we always understand." . . .
On U.S.-Cuban relations: In answer to Malcolm's statement that "As long as Uncle Sam is against you, you know you're a good man," Dr. Castro replied, "Not Uncle Sam, but those here who control magazines, newspapers..."
Dr. Castro tapered the conversation off with an attempted quote of Lincoln. "You can fool some of the people some of the time,..." but his English faltered and he threw up his hands as if to say, "You know what I mean." ||||
Why were we nicer to Khrushchev than to Castro? In the end, it was a matter of power and not virtue. Khrushchev we had to respect but, by the standard of the American foreign policy myth, Castro was too small potatoes for such an honor.
Over and over, we have treated difficult heads of smaller countries this way and it has inevitably been to our loss. And we still haven't learned the lesson.
When I wasn't being a student journalist at Harvard, I was a drummer - and in those days you couldn't qualify for cool without some affection for, and skill in, Afro-Cuban rhythms. Castro was thus also, among other things, a living representation of the sound of meaning. When the door slammed on Cuba, even the term Afro-Cuban disappeared and it wasn't until decades later, listening to the Buena Vista Social Club for the first time with an unexpected sense of deja vu, that the rhythm and spirit came back to me.
And music wasn't the only thing lost, as ESPN noted:
"By most descriptions, the 1950s [Washington] Senators are a loose and entertaining bunch, which probably helps take the sting out of their .416 winning percentage for the decade. About the only positive on-field accomplishment anyone seems to recall is an all-Cuban triple play (Ramos to Becquer to Jose Valdivieslo) turned against Whitey Herzog of the Kansas City A's. Though he still had to suffer through the mindless indignity of segregation at spring training in Florida, Julio Becquer says life in Washington, D.C. was perfectly comfortable for dark-skinned ballplayers with Spanish accents. 'We had no problems whatsoever,' he remembered. 'None. Zero. I'd go anywhere. I'd do anything. I was well-liked.'" With the despised Castro, the Cuban ballplayers weren't welcomed either."
After college, I found myself in uniform as a Coast Guard officer, waiting with others in uniform to find out if Castro, Kennedy or Khrushchev would cause a world war that we would have to fight. The romance of Fidel had disappeared and would never return.
Which is not to say that I regretted the fall of Batista or had the slightest regard for the multitudinous misadventures of his squalid, sordid Florida heirs or favored anything other than normal relations with Cuba. I became a Castro moderate, which is to say that I admired what he did for literacy and disliked what he did for liberty. According to Human Rights Watch, Castro executed 15,000 political opponents since coming to power. That's a lot of people who won't be reading in the future, either poorly or well.
My personal involvement with Cuba soon faded until the Elian affair. When word circulated in my neighborhood that they were looking for temporary housing for Elian, the young boy who had come from Cuba, I was among those who suggested Rosedale, a nearby estate owned by Youth for Understanding, a non-profit already well wired to the Central Intelligence Agency.
I knew Rosedale well because, as the elected neighborhood commissioner, I had helped to save it from the National Cathedral, which planned to sell it to the Bulgarian Embassy. It was a brutal fight. On one occasion, another commissioner and I had actually accused the bishop in a memo of a "breach of faith." At a heated neighborhood meeting, Bishop Creighton was surrounded on either side by Cathedral officials Robert Amory and Richard Drain, who were coincidentally top figures in the CIA. "It looks like Caesar 2, God 1," I remarked. Bishop Creighton struck back by suggesting an anti-Eastern European tenor to the community's opposition. I looked Creighton right in the eye and told him what I thought of the charge, concluding that "on the whole, I have been treated better by Bulgarians than by Episcopalians." I was far from the most vociferous and we eventually saved the site along with a provision that allowed neighbors to walk their dogs on the land.
So when Elian came, the open space was neatly divided by a long yellow tape, on one side the embattled youngster, his family and the Secret Service and, on the other, the neighborhood dogs and their owners. It was clear, fair and fun. Would that our larger Cuban policy been the same.