Despite attempts by Washington and New York officialdom to turn him into the Invisible Man, the irrepressible Fidel Castro emerged Sunday as one of the celebrities of the United Nations’ 50th birthday celebration.
President Clinton and New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani pointedly left the Cuban president off the invitation lists for their receptions and dinners.
But an untroubled Castro grabbed attention anyway by meeting with U.S. business people seeking markets in Cuba, returning to Harlem (scene of one of his most famous exploits 35 years ago), delivering one of the best-received speeches at the summit and preening for an hourlong interview on CNN.
Americans found a much more subdued Castro on his first visit to the United States in 16 years than in the past. At the United Nations, the 69-year-old leader wore a double-breasted blue suit, although he switched to his trademark army fatigues at Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church. His long beard is now graying and carefully coiffed.
Accustomed to whipping up crowds with hours of oratory, Castro limited his speech to the anniversary summit to barely more than five minutes - at least two hours shorter than his last speech to the U.N. General Assembly in 1979.
He gave no indication that he intends to move Cuba from the communist course that he set down for it.
At the United Nations, the Cuban leader evoked swells of applause from the assemblage of leaders, most from the Third World, with his portrait of 50 years of global failure by the world body.
Insisting that 20 million people die every year of hunger and curable diseases, the Cuban president demanded rhetorically, “How long shall we wait for this carnage to end?
“Will the next generations reach the promised land pledged half a century ago?” he asked. “How many hundreds of millions have died without ever seeing it? How many have fallen victims of oppression, plundering, poverty, hunger and insalubrity? How many more will still die?”
In Harlem, Castro’s limousine pulled up to cheers from about 1,200 people who had waited in line to hear him speak, and another 200 fans standing on street corners.
He entered the Abyssinian Baptist Church about 7:45 to roars of “Fidel, Fidel, Fidel.” The crowd chanted, “Cuba, si; Embargo, no.”
“This is the 35th anniversary of my first visit to this neighborhood,” Castro said. “Now the incredible thing is that I am still expelled. I am still being left out of the dinners and banquets, as if nothing has changed over all those years, as if there was still a Cold War.”
Castro’s visit was far different from his celebrated visit in 1960.
On that occasion, Castro and his entourage of 50, dressed in combat fatigues, stormed out of the Shelburne Hotel on Lexington Avenue, insisting the hotel’s demand for cash deposits was unacceptable. Tailed by the media, Castro led his entourage to Harlem, where they rented 40 rooms in the Theresa Hotel.
Soviet leader Nikita S. Khrushchev, sure that Castro had been thrown out by the midtown hotel, later called on Castro in the Harlem hotel, meeting him for the first time.
The Shelburne Hotel manager, feeling maligned, then revealed to reporters the Castro party had been cooking chicken on hot plates in their rooms.