His trademark cigar jutting from his bushy beard, Fidel Castro led a wild-looking motorcade through the streets of Manhattan back in 1960, to be greeted by cheering crowds up in Harlem.
Fresh from his takeover of Cuba, Castro fully relished the role of romantic revolutionary.
Thirty-five years later, Castro takes Manhattan again, this time for a brief but propitious appearance before the United Nations this morning.
He landed in New York on Saturday for another swing through the capitalist capital of the world, and he plans to make a return trip to Harlem.
His heavily guarded motorcade pulled up to the Cuban U.N. Mission in midtown Manhattan, greeted by about 30 demonstrators who shouted “Assassin” and “Freedom for Cuba!” Scores of counterdemonstrators marched through the city earlier on Saturday, calling for an end to the U.S. embargo against Cuba.
Castro’s revolution has long faded. His beard has turned gray. His economy is staggering. He is more isolated than ever since the decline of communism. His nation faces tougher and tougher economic sanctions.
And now he must court business leaders and play the role of responsible statesman to try to gain legitimacy in the world community.
But through it all, Castro has retained his power to arouse fierce passions, inspire loathing, steal the show and attract many fans. He remains a charismatic celebrity and, more than ever, the bane of the United States.
“We’ll probably see the same kind of romantic adulation of Castro when he goes anywhere, by some people who have a misguided idea of what’s going on inside Cuba,” grumbled a senior Clinton administration official.
In 1960, Castro stormed off to Harlem in a huff, leaving behind a luxury mid-Manhattan hotel to commune with Malcolm X and mingle with black residents who, he thought, could identify with his leftist revolution. Sunday night he plans to retrace that path.
Snubbed by President Clinton and New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who will host receptions for nearly 200 other visiting dignitaries, Castro plans to appear at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem to meet with common folk.
Thousands of people from as far as Massachusetts have besieged the church with requests to meet with Castro.
“People are saying, ‘Why didn’t you get Giants Stadium like for the pope?”’ said Emily Thomas, a community activist organizing the event. “We are being inundated, and word hasn’t even gone out yet publicly.”
Such reactions drive Castro’s adversaries almost wild with anger and disgust. They say anyone familiar with his oppression of political opponents would quickly cast aside any regard for the man.
Exiles from South Florida and New Jersey plan a flotilla and a march today to try to undermine Castro’s image.
“We want the world to recognize that Fidel Castro is a tyrant, and we want leaders to start pressuring him toward a process of genuine democracy for Cuba,” said Ramon Raul Sanchez, leader of the Democracy Movement that’s organizing the anti-Castro flotilla.