It would hardly be possible, Eric Hobsbawm once said, to imagine rebels better designed to appeal to the New Left than Castro and his comrades. Despite occasional sneers from Third World elders (Nasser dismissed them as ‘a bunch of Errol Flynns’), Western liberals were just as infatuated as radicals. The New York Times published an admiring three-part profile of Castro from his hideout in the Sierra Maestra in 1957, when he was still a revolutionary newt. Two years later, after his forces swept through the lowland cities, triggering a series of popularly assisted uprisings that shattered the sclerotic regime of Fulgencio Batista, adulation came from all quarters: letters of congratulation from US congressmen, rights requests from Hollywood, invitations to ‘Dr Castro’ to address Ivy League undergraduates. ‘My staff and I were all Fidelistas,’ the Cuba desk officer of the CIA recalled.
In the wake of his triumph, Castro scrambled to attract Washington’s benediction. Three months after his forces took Havana, he travelled to New York at the invitation of a group of American newspaper editors. There he engaged a Madison Avenue PR firm, appeared on Meet the Press, fed peanuts to the elephants at the Bronx Zoo, and played with schoolchildren wearing black paper beards. ‘Castro Declares Regime is Free of Red Influence,’ a satisfied New York Times declared. At a conference at Princeton organised by R.R. Palmer, the historian of bourgeois revolutions, Castro reassured his audience that his revolution would take its cue from 1776 rather than 1789 or 1917 (there is some dispute as to whether Hannah Arendt was in the audience, nodding with approval). The Cuban revolution, Castro said, owed its success to the excesses of Batista’s secret police – twenty thousand extrajudicial killings in the 1950s alone – and to the fact that the Fidelistas ‘had not preached class war’. Although the Cuban revolution marked socialism’s first breakthrough in the Americas, it was tempting from the outset to treat it as a latecomer among the liberal revolutions of the previous century, on whose leaders – Garibaldi, Bolívar, Martí – Castro self-consciously modelled himself.
Castro’s early reforms had a puritanical edge. The regime shut down brothels and casinos. Out of some lingering attachment to bourgeois morals, Castro insisted that all the guerrilla boyfriends and girlfriends of the Sierra Maestra get married. But the most popular and significant reform had to do with land. The impetus for land reform, as the historian Sara Kozameh has shown, came as much from Cuban peasants as from the revolutionaries themselves, who had to manage a delicate anti-Batista coalition of the rural poor – for whom Castro’s encampments often provided their first taste of the state (doctors, teachers, schools) – and small landowners, who supported Castro with material resources and even invested in revolutionary securities. The revolution’s Fundamental Law limited all holdings to four hundred hectares, with the rest to be expropriated by the state and compensated with twenty-year bonds. As a temporary measure, no land could now be purchased by non-Cubans. All this was too much for the Eisenhower administration. Though it had barely lifted a finger on Batista’s behalf, Washington kept close tabs on the negotiations between US corporations and the new regime. It hardly mattered that during a visit to Tokyo shortly after the revolution, Che Guevara, the central banker of the new government, had been inspired by the much more extensive land reforms Washington had imposed on postwar Japan, which limited land to one hectare per person.
For Eisenhower, the conqueror of Europe, upstart radicals in Central America and the Caribbean were flies to be swatted. Jacobo Árbenz in Guatemala had set anti-communist alarm bells ringing in 1952 when his Decree 900 had limited holdings to ninety hectares. But Castro was also preceded by the Bolivian example. The left-wing revolutionary government of Paz Estenssoro – once looked on even less favourably than Árbenz by Washington – had managed to persuade the Eisenhower administration that its nationalising agenda was harmonious with US regional hegemony. Castro was not willing to bend that far. Within six months of recognising his government, the Eisenhower administration drew up plans to undermine it. It banned trade with Cuba in 1960, and the CIA began to assist Cuban exiles who were using biplanes to bomb Cuban sugar refineries. But the sabotage campaign only hardened Cuban resolve and increased Castro’s international recognition. Outside Cuba, the US-backed detonation in 1960 of the French freighter La Coubre, which was delivering arms in Havana harbour (a hundred people were killed), is mostly forgotten. The image Alberto Korda snapped of the bereted Che Guevara at a memorial service for the victims is hard to avoid.
Simon Hall’s Ten Days in Harlem is a lively account of Castro’s charm offensive in September 1960 when he visited New York again, this time to address the United Nations General Assembly. It was a sensitive moment for all concerned: Castro’s revolution was just starting to establish itself, the UN was digesting seventeen new members – the ‘Year of Africa’ – and was mired in the Congo crisis, while Eisenhower showed no sign of being able to handle the civil rights protests taking place across the US. ‘For Fidel,’ Hall writes, ‘the opportunity to add to America’s discomfort was far too good to pass up.’ But Castro himself endured a series of discomforts during the trip. Already apprised of Washington’s plot to eliminate him, he was jittery on the jet-prop airliner to New York, which he half-expected to be intercepted by US fighters. ‘If I were the CIA,’ he told his entourage, ‘I’d shoot down the plane at sea and report the whole thing as an accident.’ (He need not have conjectured: that sort of attack would come in 1976, when Cuban exiles backed by Washington bombed the airliner carrying the Cuban fencing team, the first major terrorist attack on a passenger plane and the largest airborne act of terror in the Americas until 9/11.)
The Cubans got off to a rough start in New York. Accommodation in the city was scarce. Castro had brought his hammock in case the delegation needed to camp in Central Park. Within 24 hours of checking into the Hotel Shelburne on Lexington Avenue, the owner, who had heard rumours that the Cuban delegates were plucking and cooking chickens in their rooms, demanded a $10,000 security deposit. Furious, Castro gave a news conference and suggested the UN headquarters should be moved somewhere else (one point of agreement with Eisenhower), and that he would sleep in Central Park after all. When reporters asked Castro if he wasn’t worried about thieves in the park, he replied with mock astonishment: ‘How can there be thieves in this country? Don’t the workers earn decent salaries?’ The Cubans moved to the Hotel Theresa in Harlem, a hotspot favoured by the interwar jazz scene, whose glory days seemed long gone. It turned out to be such a brilliant publicity move that Hall has to beat back the myth that the whole drama was choreographed by the Cubans in advance.
To cheers of ‘Viva Castro! Viva Cuba!’ the delegation took up position at the Theresa, which became a kind of opposition headquarters during the UN session. Malcolm X was the first black leader to pay court to Castro, interviewing him on his bed and after thirty minutes declaring him ‘the only white person I have really liked’. But racial politics in Cuba would become a sore point for many of the black nationalists who visited Cuba in the course of the following decade. Some Afro-Cubans had identified with the non-white Batista, while others criticised Castro’s closing down of black associations, such as the National Federation of Negro Societies. The case of the Afro-Cuban filmmaker Guillén Landrián, whose documentaries were fêted in the Eastern Bloc but who was persecuted at home for holding the Cuban revolution to its ideals, was only one unhappy instance of the regime’s sensitivity to criticism. But while Castro’s regime lacked anything like affirmative action and stumbled in the face of everyday racism, officially declaring in 1962 that racial divisions had been overcome, it delivered on literacy, housing and political consciousness. In the international arena, Cuba was like a mighty ant, carrying several multiples of its weight in the fight against white supremacy. Across Africa, tens of thousands of Cuban soldiers helped to secure anti-colonial gains, most dramatically the defeat of the South African forces at Cuito Cuanavale in southern Angola, which jump-started the disintegration of apartheid. It was no surprise when Nelson Mandela made one of his first trips as president to Havana.
New York City has long been used as a propaganda venue for outspoken critics of America, who figure that they are unlikely to be assassinated in the vicinity of Wall Street and Rockefeller Centre. In 2006, Hugo Chávez delivered free heating oil to the South Bronx and ostentatiously paid off the debts of Hispanic NGOs in the city. For Castro in the 1960s, Harlem was a useful place to expose American injustice. He made a point of inviting the hotel’s mostly black staff to dinner and introducing them to dignitaries. The egalitarian spectacle became a press sensation, and the city’s dissident intelligentsia – Allen Ginsberg, Amiri Baraka, I.F. Stone – flocked to the Theresa’s ballroom, with Henri Cartier-Bresson on hand to capture it all. Other Third World leaders in New York that week could only complain of stolen limelight. Kwame Nkrumah, who had worked in a soap factory in Harlem in his twenties, found himself relegated to second fiddle in the press. One of the best moments in Hall’s account comes when Nasser goes to Harlem to visit the Cubans. When he presents Castro with a silver tea set, Castro asks whether he couldn’t give him a crocodile instead. Nasser explains that there are precisely four crocodiles in the whole of Egypt, all housed at the Cairo Zoo. For days afterwards, Hall reports, Nasser could be heard to mutter: ‘A crocodile … a crocodile.’
Ten Days in Harlem doesn’t stint on piquant detail, and Hall has good grounds for stressing the psychological aspects of Castro’s exchanges: in later years he chose to send Cuban troops in support of those revolutionary leaders he got along with – Ben Bella, Agostinho Neto, Amílcar Cabral, Mengistu Haile Mariam. But there are also times when Hall lapses into the mode of the Kodak-carousel left, picking out scenes for colour rather than significance. Historians can be paparazzi late to the scene. Though Hall gives it somewhat short shrift, the centrepiece of Castro’s week in New York was the four-and-a-half-hour speech he delivered to the UN General Assembly. There, Castro not only linked Cuba to the rest of the decolonising world, stressing that as far as he was concerned he was declaring Cuba’s independence from US corporate monopolies; he also walked the Cold War tightrope, joking that, when it came to expropriations, ‘We were not 100 per cent communist yet … We were just becoming slightly pink.’ As Hall suggests, this was a turning point for the UN, which would soon no longer be a clearing house for the US’s global mission, but a persistent source of embarrassment for Washington. In December 1960, at the request of Harold Macmillan, the US would go some way towards squandering its already dubious anti-colonial image when it joined South Africa and Portugal in abstaining on the General Assembly’s resolution calling for ‘a speedy and unconditional end’ to colonialism ‘in all its forms and manifestations’.
The extreme length of Castro’s speeches is a puzzle. He compulsively worked them over. Angela Davis remembers him telling her that he used to get nervous before delivering them. Part of it may have been to do with the methodical patience he learned during his two years in the mountain fastness of the Sierra Maestra. It was also the place where Castro, who worshipped Martí’s verses and read Gabriel García Márquez’s first drafts, wrote his own poetry. In the early years he still had to explain his revolution to the world – and to himself – and to defend its shifting agenda against a relentless counter-narrative spun out of Miami, Washington and Pretoria. In some sense, it may be better to think of Castro’s long speeches as monumental feats of compression, in which he synthesised vast quantities of information about the global anti-imperial struggle for his spectators, in much the same way as Cicero extrapolated from the data of Roman tax collectors, and Burke offered an anthropology of the American colonies. ‘Colonies do not speak,’ he told the General Assembly, and that above all was what he wanted to contradict. Not only Cuban matters but those of all nations came into Castro’s critique, from the insufficient de-Nazification of West Germany to French atrocities in Algeria. In later decades, his speeches would become gruelling national rituals, but almost to the end they remained a reliable point of resistance to US triumphalism.
Castro’s exit from New York was harder than his entry. Arriving at Idlewild Field, he discovered that his delegation’s Cuban jet-prop had been impounded by a Brooklyn lawyer with a court order as collateral for the seized property of US businessmen in Cuba. The US State Department tried to overrule local law enforcement, but the case had to wait for a judge’s ruling. Castro could not have asked for a better demonstration of the fact that the US state was a servant of monied interests. (Sixty years later, in 2012, there was an even more dramatic instance when the US navy seized an Argentine ship in Ghanaian waters on behalf of Paul Singer’s New York hedge fund.) The seizure of his plane left Castro with little choice but to take the seat on a Soviet jet Khrushchev offered him. ‘You took away our planes,’ Castro explained in broken English to the assembled press. ‘The Soviets gave us planes … The American people is good people. The Harlem people is wonderful people. You the reporters are wonderful. But you are not the owners.’
‘We have driven Cuba inch by inch into alliance with the Soviet,’ Norman Mailer wrote, ‘as deliberately and insanely as a man setting out to cuckold himself.’ Castro never wanted to be beholden to the Soviets. He had downplayed the role of the local Communist Party (Partido Socialista Popular) in preparing the ground for his own revolution. But there were only so many options for a single-crop economy of seven million people ninety miles from the Florida coast. After Kennedy, in April 1961, signed off on the coup Eisenhower had planned, and incompetently executed it, nothing was going to repair relations (in the lead-up to the Cuban Missile Crisis, Mailer proposed easing relations by sending Ernest Hemingway to Havana as a sympathetic cultural observer). The US would spend the next half-century in a prolonged ideological confrontation that led it to unroll endless aid and land reform programmes, such as Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress, in order to forestall revolutions across Latin America. Castro turned to Moscow less out of ideological alignment than because he didn’t have much of an ideology. As Richard Gott writes in his history of Cuba:
When the Cuban revolutionaries came to run the country they were at a loss … First they tried one thing, then another: they imported foreign economists; they tried import-substitution; they sought diversification; they nationalised everything in sight; they listened to the siren songs of those suggesting economic autarchy. Finally they turned to the Soviet Union, the source of innumerable advisers, much fresh technology and seemingly limitless amounts of cash. The Russians had run a revolution for half a century. They were the experts.
In the 1990s, after Gorbachev abruptly withdrew aid from Cuba, the economy nearly collapsed. The state encouraged farmers to enlist draught animals again instead of machines that were beyond repair. Castro allowed paladares – small private restaurants – to open, while his brother, Raúl, who took over the state in 2011, took a softer approach to the black market. Washington’s chief export continues to be amateurish intelligence operations. In the past decade, the US Agency for International Development has tried to foment youth insurrections in Cuba by setting up a social media platform with built-in surveillance, infiltrating music festivals, and co-opting some of the country’s least talented rappers. Today Americans have returned in their original incarnations: as investors, as tourists, and as missionaries gaining footholds for their churches by providing clean water in the smaller cities. Cuba no longer sends expeditionary forces around the world, but its ‘white coat army’ of doctors has fought Covid-19 in forty countries. ‘History will absolve me,’ Castro shouted at his first trial, as a 27-year-old revolutionary whose attempt to take the Moncada Barracks had ended in disaster. Seventy years later, it is still difficult to come to any verdict. But Gott’s modest judgment seems sound: apart from his African heroics, Castro’s most durable legacy may be that he left enough of a social buffer to cushion the blow as Cuba re-enters the capitalist world order.