In September 1960 Fidel Castro traveled to the United States to address the United Nations General Assembly. His trip coincided with a decisive turning point in the Cuban revolution. In response to Washington's accelerating political, economic, and military aggression, which Castro documented in his speech to the assembly, virtually all imperialist-owned banks and industries in Cuba, along with the largest holdings of Cuba's capitalist owners, were nationalized between August and October 1960.
Tens of thousands of Cuban working people occupied fields and factories and mobilized in the streets to guarantee that everything from AT&T, to Standard Oil, to United Fruit, to Bacardi Rum and the Havana Hilton became the property of the Cuban people. The transition to a planned socialist economy had begun.
Like the Cuban president's recent trip to the United States to address the United Nations 50th anniversary celebration, 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.
Printed below is an excerpt from the Pathfinder book To Speak the Truth: Why Washington's `Cold War' against Cuba Doesn't End, describing the enthusiastic reception the revolutionary leader received in Harlem at the time. The book, which contains speeches of Castro and Ernesto Che Guevara at the United Nations, is copyright 1992 by Pathfinder Press (see ad on Page 9). This excerpt is reprinted by permission. Subheadings are by the Militant.
One event that occurred during Castro's 1960 visit to the United States was a meeting between two of the outstanding twentieth-century revolutionary leaders of the Americas - Fidel Castro and Malcolm X.
The discussion took place at the Hotel Theresa in Harlem, shortly after the Cuban delegation's arrival on the evening of September 19. As Castro stated thirty years later: "I will always recall my meeting with Malcolm X at the Hotel Theresa, because he was the one who made it possible and gave his support so that we could stay there. We had two alternatives [of places to stay]. One was the United Nations gardens. When I mentioned this to the secretary-general, he was horrified at the thought of a delegation in tents there. But then we received Malcolm X's offer - he had spoken with one of our compañeros. And I said, `That is the place, the Hotel Theresa.' And there we went."
At the time Malcolm X was the leading spokesman of the Nation of Islam in New York. In March 1964, he broke with that organization. Less than a year later, in February 1965, he was assassinated.
Commenting on the meeting, Malcolm X told the press, "Premier Castro has come out against lynching, which is more than President Eisenhower has done. Castro has also taken a more open stand for civil rights for Black Cubans."
Malcolm X met with Castro as a prominent member of a "welcoming committee" that had been set up in Harlem several weeks earlier. The purpose of this group, which included a wide range of Black community leaders, was to greet heads of state, particularly from African countries, who would be in New York to address the UN General Assembly. Sixteen African countries were admitted to membership in the UN at that session.
Malcolm X came under attack in the media for his initiative in welcoming the Cuban delegation and for taking responsibility for the organization of a defense guard at the Hotel Theresa to assure their safety. When prominent members of the Welcoming Committee refused to support Malcolm's stand, he publicly resigned from that body. "During the time Dr. Castro was in Harlem, thanks to the Nationalists and the Muslims, there was no rioting or lawlessness in Harlem," Malcolm X wrote. "The Muslims and the Black Nationalists in Harlem exerted every imaginable effort to see that Harlem remained `calm and orderly.' "
"Despite this," he continued, "the daily press has unleashed a savage propaganda attack against us, purposely distorting facts, purposely telling bare-faced lies, labeling us as lawless terrorists, subversives, seditionists, etc." In resigning from the Welcoming Committee, Malcolm pledged to "henceforth confine my activities and efforts with and among the little men in the street, whose honesty and integrity makes them fearless when time comes to take an uncompromising stand, without hesitation, on the side of right and truth."
The article printed here is an account of the meeting between Castro and Malcolm X, written by Ralph D. Matthews, one of the journalists present. It was published in the September 24, 1960, New York Citizen-Call.
Up in Fidel's Room
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.
Up in Fidel's Room
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.
Malcolm X gained entry when few others could because he had recently been named to a welcoming committee for visiting dignitaries set up by Harlem's Twenty-eighth Police Precinct Council.
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.
Castro was dressed in green army fatigues. I expected them to be as sloppy as news photos tended to make them. To my surprise, his casual attire, just the same was immaculately creased and spanking clean.
His beard by dim room light was dark brown with just a suggestion of red.
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."
Not addicted to propaganda
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."
Members of the Castro party spilled over from an adjoining room, making the small quarters even more cramped. Most of the Cubans smoked long cigars and when something amused them, they threw their heads back and blew smoke puffs as they laughed.
Castro's conversational gestures were unusual. He would touch his temples with extended fingers as he made a point or tapped his chest as if to see if it were still there.
His interpreter would translate longer sentences from Malcolm X into Spanish and Castro would listen alertly and smile courteously. During the course of their conversation, Cuba's Castro and Harlem's Malcolm covered much political and philosophical ground.
On his troubles with the Hotel Shelburne, Dr. Castro said: "They have our money. Fourteen thousand dollars. They didn't want us to come here. When they knew we were coming here, they wanted to come along." (He did not clarify who "they" was in this instance.)
On racial discrimination: "We work for every oppressed person." But he raised a cautioning hand. "I did not want to interfere in the inner policy of a country."
And then in a slight voice of warning, still on the general theme of racial inequity, Dr. Castro said, "I will speak in the Hall (referring to the United Nations General Assembly)."
"Is there any news on Lumumba?" Malcolm X smiled broadly at the mention of the Congolese leader's name. Castro then raised his hand. "We will try to defend him (Lumumba) strongly."
"I hope Lumumba stays here at the Theresa."
"There are fourteen African nations coming into the Assembly. We are Latin Americans. We are their brothers."
Fight against racist discrimination
On American Negroes: "Castro is fighting against discrimination in Cuba, everywhere."
Fight against racist discrimination
"You lack rights and you want your rights."
"Our people are changing. Now we're one of the most free people in the world."
"Negroes in the U.S. have more political conscience, more vision than anyone else."
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..."
On the UN General Assembly: "There will be a tremendous lesson to be learned at this session. Many things will happen in this session and the people will have a clearer idea of their rights."
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."
Malcolm, rising to leave, explained his Muslim group for a Cuban reporter who had just come in, "We are followers of Muhammad. He says we can sit and beg for 400 more years. But if we want our rights now, we will have to..." Here he paused and smiled enigmatically, "Well,..."
Castro smiled. He smiled again as Malcolm told him a parable. "No one knows the master better than his servants. We have been servants ever since we were brought here. We know all his little tricks. Understand? We know what he is going to do before he does."
The Cuban leader listened to this being translated into Spanish, then threw his head back and laughed heartily. "Sí," he said heartily. "Sí."
We said our adios and then walked down the crowded hall, took the elevator to the street, where outside the crowds still milled around.
Some excited Harlemite then shouted into the night, "Viva Castro!"
Front page (for this issue) | Home | Text-version home