BY ARGIRIS MALAPANIS
NEW YORK - The five-day whirlwind visit by Cuban president Fidel Castro here dominated the news in this city and across the country for nearly a week. It showed vividly the weight of revolutionary Cuba in world politics today - the only country where the working class holds state power with a communist leadership at the helm.
From the United Nations, where he got stronger applause than any other head of state, to a meeting with Puerto Rican businessmen in a Bronx restaurant, Castro was at the center of attention as he explained that the Cuban people have steadfastly stood "in solidarity with the poor of this earth."
Above all, the event that captured the appeal of the Cuban revolution to many working people - especially Blacks, Puerto Ricans, and other Latinos - was the meeting at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem on Sunday, October 22.
"Back in the 'hood: Castro cheered in Harlem church," blared the headline of the October 23 New York Daily News, covering nearly the entire front page. It was Castro's second appearance in Harlem, which he first visited 35 years ago, shortly after the triumph of the Cuban revolution (see article on page 10).
The nearly 1,600 people who packed the church at the ticketed rally gave the Cuban leader a rousing welcome. A ten-minute standing ovation greeted Castro.
"We have shed our blood to fight against colonialism and to defend the independence and sovereignty of the peoples," Castro said halfway into his speech, bringing the overwhelmingly Black and Latino audience to its feet once again with chants of "Viva Cuba revolucionaria!" (Long live revolutionary Cuba).
With these remarks, Castro began explaining at some length the essential role of Cuban volunteer troops in Africa in helping to defend the sovereignty of Angola, win the independence of Namibia, and bring about the downfall of the apartheid regime in South Africa.
The Cuban president spoke for more than an hour, with translation, after introductory remarks by Elombe Brath, leader of the Patrice Lumumba Coalition and the event's chair; Rosemari Mealy, author of Fidel and Malcolm X: Memories of a Meeting; Rev. Calvin Butts, pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church; and Luis Miranda of Casa de las Americas.
The event was sponsored by the Africans in the Americas Committee to Welcome Fidel Castro. The group was made up of a host of organizations in the Black community of the New York/ Northern New Jersey area. Congresspeople Charles Rangel, Nydia Velazquez, and José Serrano - all Democrats from New York - also attended.
Same U.S. hostility as in 1960
"This is the 35th anniversary of my visit to this neighborhood," Castro said, recalling his 1960 trip when he stayed at the Hotel Theresa in Harlem after being excluded from downtown hotels. "Now the incredible thing is that I am still being expelled, I am still being left out of the dinners and the receptions," he said jokingly to the appreciative laughter of the crowd.
New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani had refused to invite Castro to a banquet the previous night to welcome the heads of state who had arrived for the 50th anniversary celebration of the United Nations. The Cuban delegation was also excluded from President Bill Clinton's welcoming dinner. And the mayor's office sent a memo to UN officials with an ultimatum that he would withdraw the New York Philharmonic orchestra from a concert for UN guests, scheduled the same night as the Harlem event, if Castro attended.
Even before Castro arrived, Giuliani, who called the Cuban president a "demon," accused him of sending thousands of "undesirable marielitos" to the United States, whom the mayor blamed for much of the violent crime in the city. This caused a stir among many Cubans who came to the United States with the 1980 Mariel boatlift, a big majority of whom were workers and many were Black.
The October 20 El Diario/La Prensa, the main Spanish-lan guage daily in the city, published an article describing the anger of many of these Cubans. Roberto Pereira, of the group Mariel Cubans Against the Blockade, called in to express his outrage at the mayor, the article said. "That Giuliani is a buffoon," Manuel Rojas, another Mariel émigré, told El Diario. "It's pure racism to say that we are responsible for the crime in this country."
"It's really incredible that history repeats itself in this way," Castro told his Harlem audience, making a comparison with the scorn the Cuban delegation received from U.S. officials in 1960. "It's as if we are still in the days of the Cold War."
The Cuban president humorously explained that he made a point of going to the Cuban Mission to the United Nations before coming to Harlem where he was glad to change from the business suit he donned for previous diplomatic engagements to his usual fatigues. "Being surrounded by heads of state so often is sometimes intolerable," he stated to laughter and applause.
The reason that hostility from U.S. government officials has not changed since 1959, Castro said, is probably because "we have not changed either.
"I think that our people have fulfilled their moral duty, have stuck with their ideals and their principles, and we have stood in solidarity with the poor of this earth."
Castro described how tens of thousands of Cuban doctors, teachers, technicians, and engineers have voluntarily offered their services, knowledge, and skills to working people throughout the semicolonial world. During the early years of the Nicaraguan revolution, 2,000 teachers, mostly women, volunteered to go to that country's most remote villages to help with a literacy campaign. "And when U.S.- backed counterrevolutionary gangs killed some of our teachers, 100,000 volunteered to replace them," Castro stated.
If any working-class neighborhoods in the United States lacked physicians, Cuban doctors would be more than willing to come here as well, Castro said, eliciting a standing ovation.
Cuba's internationalism in Africa
But the most important internationalist contribution, the Cuban leader said, is embodied in the Cuban soldiers who gave their lives fighting colonialism in Africa. More than 2,000 Cuban volunteers died in Angola between 1975 and 1990, fighting alongside Angolan and Namibian troops, to defeat successive invasions by South Africa's apartheid regime, which was determined to thwart Angola's hard-fought independence from Portugal.
"If there is something that makes us proud and makes us feel that we fulfilled our duty to humanity, that is the 15 years we fought against the South Africans, against racism and apartheid.... one of the most horrible and repugnant systems of discrimination that ever existed."
Castro described in detail the events that led to the battle of Cuito Cuanavale in 1987-88, when the invading apartheid armies were dealt a decisive defeat and were driven out of Angola once and for all.
The defeat of the white supremacist regime there gave the necessary impetus to the democratic revolution inside South Africa, resulting in the unbanning of the African National Congress, the freedom of Nelson Mandela, and eventually the first-ever nonracial elections, which the ANC won in 1994.
Besides the Namibians and the Angolans, "only Cuba shed its generous blood against apartheid and against racism," Castro said.
"At the United Nations they don't speak about that," he added. "Speeches were just delivered there about the end of apartheid as if it were the miraculous work of the United Nations!... And the name of Cuba was not even mentioned."
Castro noted that Washington, which is now intensifying the 33-year-old economic embargo on Cuba, never blockaded South Africa during the reign of the racist regime.
Attacks on social gains in the U.S.
Returning to his first visit to Harlem, Castro reminded the audience of his historic meeting with Malcolm X in 1960.
"The great battles of Martin Luther King, the struggle for civil rights, the great struggles by the Blacks, the Hispanics, the Latin Americans to improve their living conditions... were still ahead at the time," Castro stated.
The Cuban president received an especially positive response when he pointed to the U.S. government's current attacks on the social gains of working people. "Some people today would like to do away with all assistance to the sick and the elderly. They would like to sweep away affirmative action," he stated. "They would like to sweep away all the achievements that the ordinary, humble people of America conquered in struggle."
Castro ended his speech by making reference to the remarks of Rev. Butts at the opening of the meeting. Butts said that when he visited Cuba in 1984 with other religious leaders, what impressed him the most was that Castro went to church with them at the end of their visit. "After mass I asked Castro, `Do you believe in God?' And he replied, `I like church,' " Butts said to laughter from the audience.
Castro joked that his own attitude toward the church was influenced by the fact that prior to the revolution most priests in Cuba were reactionary and corrupt, unlike Butts.
He then told the story of Hatuey, a native leader in Cuba who was captured and condemned to die at the stake for leading a rebellion against the Spanish colonizers. When his executioners gave Hatuey a last chance to be baptized - before being burned to death - in order to go to heaven, Hatuey replied defiantly, according to Castro, "If the Spaniards go to heaven, I don't want your heaven."
"In the same way, there are many in today's world who talk to us about heaven, in a world full of abuse and injustice," the Cuban president said. "We reject this heaven that they practice in this world. We seek a heaven of justice, of human dignity, and solidarity. I only believe in this kind of heaven and I am willing to give my life for it," Castro concluded, bringing the audience to its feet.
Impact throughout visit
The meeting dominated front-page headlines in most newspapers here. But the rest of Castro's visit continued to receive widespread media attention, not just in the Big Apple, but in small town newspapers and radio stations throughout the state and the country.
The Cuban president had luncheons with several businessmen, met with media personalities, appeared for an hour-long program on CNN, and gave an interview to the editors of the Wall Street Journal. In an October 26 editorial, the New York Times editors referred to Castro's "unbending allegiance to Cuban Socialism," after the Cuban president dropped by there for an interview before leaving town October 25.
In several of his meetings, Castro was confronted by small picket lines of Cuban Americans opposed to the revolution. The right-wingers were frustrated by the widespread attention Castro's message got. In one case, on October 23, these thugs attacked Harold García, a cameraman for CNN who was covering the picket lines at the Cuban Mission. García was hospitalized with injuries in his left eye.
But in most cases, supporters of Cuba successfully countered the right-wing protests and sometimes outnumbered them. Casa de las Americas and other groups, for example, chartered a yacht with a huge "Viva Cuba" banner that sailed up the Hudson River to counter a right-wing flotilla of 20 boats while Castro was addressing the United Nations.
In another case, when Castro spoke to 300 Puerto Rican businessmen at Jimmy's Bronx Café, a restaurant in the Bronx, on October 23, 40 right-wing protesters set up a picket. They were immediately outflanked by some 200 residents from the neighborhood, mostly Puerto Ricans and Dominicans, who drowned out the anti-Cuba pickets with chants of "Fidel!, Fidel!" and "Cuba sí, bloqueo no."
"We support Castro 100 percent," said 20-year-old
Winston Martínez, expressing the sentiment of many in the
area. "All we have in the world is Castro and Mandela
speaking for the people of the Third World, the big
majority of humanity."
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