Fidel Castro is one of the most important figures in modern history. His 90th anniversary has become a momentous event that has caused headlines in many countries of the world. In Cuba, the media has been giving space to profuse celebrations for several months.
Fidel was the principal leader of the insurrectionary struggle against the tyranny of Fulgencio Batista and he commanded the Cuban Revolution since the triumph of January 1, 1959 until, prompted by health problems, he announced the termination of his appointment as president in 2006.
He is recognized across the world for his anti-imperialist ideas, in favour of Latin American unity and defence of Cuban sovereignty, and has been an icon of worldwide leftist movements for decades.
He is distinguished by being an educated politician with statesmanlike skills who has recast Cuba’s global role, as much by it foreign policy as in the country’s progress in the field of science, health, education, culture and sport.
The figure of Fidel and his charismatic leadership has always aroused extreme passions, never indifference. Even his greatest adversaries tend to recognise his courage and consistent defence of those ideals during a long life that in which he is still a public figure of considerable influence in a transforming Cuba.
He has also been one of the most photographed men in the world.
In the context of the attempted normalization between the United States and Cuba, in which both countries showed their interest on December 17, 2014, OnCuba remember some of Fidel Castro’s visits to the United States between the 1950s and the year 2000, which was the last time he appeared before the UN General Assembly in New York.
On October 23, 1955, coming from Mexico, Fidel Castro arrives in New York, the first point of a tour of the United States that had as one of its main objectives to meet with Cubans living in that country, to explain the positions of the newly formed July 26 Movement and garner the ideological and material support that Cuban emigrants could contribute to the fight against the tyranny of Fulgencio Batista.
Penniless he left Cuba determined to do what other, with millions of pesos, had failed. And far from knocking on doors of those who became rich, I went to the people, I visited the émigrés, I launched a manifesto across the country asking for help, and I began to beg for the country, to gather the funds I needed to win their freedom penny by penny. How comfortable and simple, free from sweat, sacrifice, stress, and fatigue would the easy way out have been, which others, less convinced of their cleanliness of their cause and the greatness of the people, would have adopted. Asking for help from those who have a lot of money because they have stolen it, ask for a small part of their fortune in exchange for a promise of security and respect. Currying favour with powerful money and politicking were easy things! But no: I did the opposite! A strange mania for doing the opposite of what everyone has hitherto done!
In New York some 200 Cubans, summoned by the Orthodox Committee of New York, the Cuban Civic Action and Committee of Cuban Emigrants and Exiles, receive him.
A few days later, at the Hotel Palm Garden, New York, he meets with about 800 Cuban emigrants pertaining to the cause of these young revolutionaries who had assaulted the Moncada Barracks on July 26, 1953. That morning, before them, he undertook a sort of oath to be fulfilled in 1959: “I can inform you with all responsibility that in 1956 we will be free or we will be martyrs. This struggle began for us on March 10; has lasted almost four years, and will end on the last day of the dictatorship or our last day”.
He also explained to those present the meaning of the struggle, which went beyond toppling Batista.
The Cuban people want more than a simple change of command. Cuba craves a radical change in all fields of public and social life. You have to give people something more than freedom and democracy in abstract terms, we must provide a decent existence every Cuban; the state cannot ignore the fate of any of the citizens who were born in the country and grew up within it. There is no greater tragedy that the man who is able to work and willing to do so, and his family, goes hungry for lack of occupation. The state is obliged to provide him work or support him until he finds it. None of the plans of action discussed in the office today contemplate that situation, as if Cuba’s serious problem consisted in how to meet the ambitions of an eager few displaced by power or eager to reach it.
These expectations came to light on January 8 in 1956 when the magazine Bohemia published an answer from Fidel Castro directed towards those who criticised his efforts in the insurrectional struggle from the USA. In this extensive article, Before everyone! Fidel considered the role of the emigres and their reality:
I would like to know which one of these suffering Cubans who came to our events and who make up the Revolutionary Clubs of Bridgeport, Union City, New York, Miami, Tampa and Key West, which of these humble compatriots who earn a living working rudely outside his homeland, is a happy owner of real estate. If anyone had their own house it would be an exception, and certainly a product of his honourable work for many years and never stolen from the republic. I saw how they lived in cramped apartments, where married couples cannot have children, where women returning tired from ten hours working in the factory have to wash and cook; where life is hard, tiring and sad, where you constantly hear the exclamation: “In Cuba I would live happily with half of what I earn here!” Before there was talk of the exiles, were little more than a hundred; many were good; their children often were portrayed in the press; They longed for their friends and their homes in the homeland. But nobody remembered the poor children of emigrants who in the northern states have to live in a climate many degrees below zero, who do not have a school where they can learn the language of their country, or doctors who understand the language of their parents. To say that they are happy homeowners, demonstrates all the politicians’ resentment towards the Cuban emigration, because those tens of thousands of families outside the country and are a painful accusation of the poor rule of government which the Republic has suffered from. The politicians said: “The Cuban problem is solved when the exiles can return.” We, the revolutionaries say: “The Cuban problem is solved when the migrants can return”.
A few months after the triumph of the Revolution, Fidel Castro returned to the United States. On April 15 he landed in Washington DC. The next day attending an interviewing at the Statler Hilton Hotel, with Cristian Herter, Secretary of State.
In Washington Fidel also had an interview with Vice President Richard Nixon. A meeting of only 15 minutes was agreed, but the then Prime Minister of Cuba was in Nixon’s office for two hours and 20 minutes. That same day, Fidel held a reception for the community of Cubans in the United States.
On April 21 he arrives in New York. Fidel Castro finds enthusiasm in the street. The Cubans who support his fight demonstrate their happiness at receiving the leader of the young, triumphant, Revolution.
In Central Park in New York, before thousands of Latin Americans, he gives a speech in which he affirms that “Cuba has become the hope, and we have to save hope with the heart and intelligence marching together”.
(…) It was precisely in this city of New York, where the second stage of the revolutionary movement that ended with the victory after three years of fighting began. I remember well what the desire of our compatriots was, and I well remember what their illusions were, it is true that they suffered with the idea of the oppressed fatherland, it is true that they suffered the pain of tyranny and cruelty that Cuba was sunk into but it is also true that another sweet hope encouraged them. The hope that was like a promised land of the Revolution, the hope of returning to Cuba. And I remember equally well what I said to them on that occasion: return may not be immediate, after the victory. After the victory we have to rebuild the country. The Cuban emigres may not return the next day. The Cuban emigrants will be able to return when we have built the new country that is being forged with so much idealism, sacrifice and honesty. But someday our emigrants are going to return to Cuba. Someday our emigrants return to their homeland to do there what they do here today: earn a living by the sweat of their brow. Promises have been fulfilled, and those that have not yet been met will be fulfilled.
Unlike the state of affairs the year previously, this time Fidel Castro’s stay in the United States was marked by conflict with the authorities. The Cuban delegation that attended the General Assembly sessions, arrived in New York on 18 September 1960 and stayed at the Hotel Shelburne, but then they had to leave.
Fidel Castro personally complained to the UN authorities, that among other pressures, the Shelburne hotel management had asked for an “unacceptable” cash advance of $10,000, supposedly to cover any damage that the Cuban delegation could cause their rooms.
Upon leaving the hotel the group went to the United Nations’ gardens. “We are mountain people”, said the ex-guerrilla to the reporters. “We are used to sleeping outdoors”.
Afro-American leaders then invited them to move to Harlem, to a small hotel in the community.
In his speech to the organisation’s National Assembly he said that “(…) an official State Department did everything possible to prevent us from staying in that hotel. In that moment, as if by magic, hotels began to appear in New York. And hotels that had earlier denied accommodation to the Cuban delegation, then offered to accommodate us for free. But we, by elemental reciprocity, we accepted the Harlem hotel.” He was talking about the Hotel Theresa.
I do not know whether we will be privileged. Will we, of the Cuban delegation, be representing the worst kind of world government? Will we be us, the representatives of the Cuban delegation, be creditors of the mistreatment that we received? And why precisely our delegation? Cuba has sent many delegations to the United Nations, Cuba has been represented by a diverse range of people and yet, we have received these emergency measures: confinement to Manhattan Island, instructions in all hotels so that they will not hire us rooms, hostility and, under the pretext of security, isolation.
In the meeting with the African-American leader Malcolm X, he told Fidel a story: “Nobody knows the master better than his servants. We have been servants since he brought us here. We know all your tricks. Does he realise? We know everything the master is going to do before he does it himself.”
In one of the longest speeches in the history of the UN, the then Prime Minister Fidel Castro explained in detail the attacks and the growing hostility of the US government towards Cuba. In October of that same year the commercial and financial blockade against the island would begin.
“You have to teach world opinion, including, therefore, American opinion, to understand the issues from another angle, from the angle of others. We do not always present the underdeveloped people as the aggressors, the revolutionaries as aggressors, as enemies of the American people. We cannot be enemies of the American people, because we have seen Americans as Carleton Beals, or as Waldo Frank, illustrious and distinguished intellectuals like them, leave in tears thinking about the mistakes they have made, in the lack of hospitality committed against us directly. In many Americans, the most humane of writers, the most progressive of its writers, the most valuable of its writers, I see the nobility of the early leaders of this country: of Washington, of Jefferson, and of Lincoln. I say this without demagoguery, with the sincere admiration that we feel for those who once were able to free their people from their colony and to fight, not so that his country today might be the ally of all reactionaries the world, the ally of the gangsters of world, the ally of the landowners, of the monopolies, of the exploiters, the militarists, fascists. That is to say, the ally of the most retrograde and the most reactionary, but rather so that his country might always be the defender of noble and just ideals.”
History has taught us that the access to independence by a people which has freed itself of the colonial or neocolonial system is, at the same time, the last act in a long struggle and the first in a new and difficult battle. This is because the independence, sovereignty and freedom of our peoples who are apparently free are continually threatened by foreign control of their natural resources, by the financial imposition of official international organizations and by the precarious situation of their economies which diminish their full sovereignty.
Development can be, in the short term, a task which requires apparent sacrifices and even contributions that might seem unrecoverable. But the vast world which today lives in backwardness, lacking purchasing power and with its capacity for consumption extremely limited, will incorporate upon its development a torrent of hundreds of millions of consumers and producers, the only ones capable of rehabilitating the international economy, including that of the developed countries which today are causing and suffering from the economic crisis.
The history of international trade has shown that development is the most dynamic factor of world commerce. The greatest part of the trade carried on at present is carried out among countries which are fully industrialized. We must insure that to the extent that industrialization and world progress expands, there will also be an expansion in commercial exchange that is beneficial to all.
It is because of that that we ask, in the name of the developing countries, and we support the cause of many countries. We are not asking for a handout. If we fail to find adequate solutions, we will all be victims of the catastrophe.
Fidel returned to the USA 16 years later, to New York, to participate in the activities of the 50th anniversary of the United Nations.
In Cuba we have lived the profound economic crisis known as the Special Period which followed the collapse of the USSR and the rest of the socialist governments of Eastern Europe.
Fidel Castro Fidel Castro then delivered a speech at the Special Commemorative Session; visited the old hotel Theresa in Harlem and addressed those present in the act of solidarity with Cuba in Abyssinia Baptist Church in the district that would take him 36 years earlier.
I met with the people of Harlem, what a pleasure! What happiness! What fondness! What affection I found there! What a fighting spirit I could see there! Amazing! 35 years ago I had to seek refuge in Harlem, because there was so much hostility that drove me to the hotel where I was; I did nothing wrong, but there was a lot of noise and the hotel owner said: “This doesn’t suit me here” and they asked respectfully, delicately, we left the hotel, and I said: Where are we going? Well, guerrillas recently descended from the mountain, the patio of the United Nations, a tent and we stayed there. Of course, it would have been a scandal and we said that to the authorities of the United Nations: maybe its best we stay here. But they the Teresa hotel got in contact, and a better idea came about – and one I liked more -, staying in Harlem, and that was wonderful.
In 2000, for the last time, Fidel appeared before the United Nations to address the General Assembly. He attended the Millennium Summit that year.
His reflections are on “The role of the United Nations in the twenty-first century”.
This time Fidel Castro delivered an unusually brief speech. In little more than 600 words the politician, 74, calls for a radical reform of the UN. The changes in the “old institution” should include the elimination of “irritating and undemocratic veto”.
It should be clearly stated that the principle of sovereignty cannot be sacrificed to an abusive and unfair order that a hegemonic superpower uses, together with its own might and strength, to try to decide everything by itself. That, Cuba will never accept.
(…)anyone understands that the United Nations basic role in the pressing new century is to save the world not only from war but also from underdevelopment, hunger, diseases, poverty and the destruction of the natural resources indispensable to human life. And it should do so promptly before it is too late!
The dream of having truly fair and sensible rules to guide human destiny seems impossible to many. However, we are convinced that the struggle for the impossible should be the motto of this institution that brings us together today!
In his words to the audience of the Riverside Church, in front of Cubans and Americans, members of solidarity groups with Cuba, Fidel Castro returns to reminisce about his tips to New York, in Manhattan, the island could never pass after his trip 1960 when US authorities demarcated the territory that he could visit in that country:
It is a miracle that I have lived this many years, and not because we spent a number of years fighting against the tyranny in our country, or for having participated in some war actions but rather because of everything that came after the triumph of the Revolution
(…) I should say, on my way here, I recalled my four visits to the United Nations. The first time, I was thrown out of the hotel near the United Nations. I had two choices: pitching a tent in the United Nations courtyard –and as a guerrilla fighter who had recently come down from the mountains, it would not have been all that difficult for me — or heading for Harlem, where I had been invited to stay in one of its hotels. I immediately decided: “I will go to Harlem because that is where my best friends are”.
(…)you understand that it is not easy for me to visit New York; there is more than enough proof of that. This time it was definitely not easy, and many of my compatriots were very worried. We are living in a special period, and I do not mean the special period in Cuba, which has been brought about by the double blockade, but rather the special period of presidential elections. And I have received all kinds of threats, from killing me to sending me to a U.S. prison
However, that was a very important meeting. They called it the Millennium Summit, and we truly are beginning a millennium full of uncertainties. What’s more, for those of us who believe that the 20th century ends this December 31, humanity is about to begin the 21st century in extremely difficult and extremely troubling conditions. I could not fail to attend for any reason, and believe me when I say that I felt very happy when I got on the plane, after the complicated procedures needed to obtain a visa.