Fidel Castro: The Rebel Who Refused to Die

There is no dearth of stories on Fidel Castro and the Cuban revolution. On his 94th birthday, let’s recall a few of them.

After he was released from prison by Gen. Fulgencio Batista’s regime in 1955, the first thing Fidel Castro did was to start building a guerilla army. He was jailed after the failed Moncada Barracks attack of July 24, 1954. When Batista released him from prison, the U.S.-backed dictator was confident that the rebellion was over. But Fidel and his comrades built a force and started guerilla warfare against the regime.

Fidel was declared dead in December 1956 after a major bombing by the Batista regime on the Sierra Maestra mountains. The United Press ran a story then titled “Cuba Wipes Out Invaders; Leader Is Among 40 Dead.” And the world believed it till February 1957 when Herbert Matthews went to the Sierra Maestra, met Fidel, Che Guevara and others and carried a Page 1 story in The New York Times. “Fidel Castro, the rebel leader of Cuba’s youth, is alive and fighting hard and successfully in the rugged, almost impenetrable fastnesses of the Sierra Maestra, at the southern tip of the island,” read the story.

There were interesting accounts on how Matthews got the story of his life. He travelled to Cuba as a rich American sugar planter, escaped army checkpoints without suspicion and was finally smuggled into the hidden camps deep inside the Sierra Maestra by Castro’s revolutionaries. Another NYT reporter Anthony DePalma later wrote a book on Matthews, The Man Who Invented Fidel, reconstructing his journey to Sierra Maestra. DePalma himself travelled to the place where Matthews met the Castros and Che, where the Cuban government has set up a marker that reads “In this place, commander-in-chief Fidel Castro Ruz met with the North American journalist Herbert Matthews on February 17, 1957”.

The Godfather

Within two years of Matthews’s scoop, Fidel was in Havana. Those who have seen Godfather II can’t miss the violence and poverty in the streets of Havana when Michale Corleone passes by. At Hyman Roth’s birthday party, Michael speaks of what he saw in the street.

Michael: “I saw an interesting thing happen today. A rebel was being arrested by the military police, and rather than be taken alive, he exploded a grenade he had hidden in his jacket. He killed himself, and took a captain of the command with him.”

Johny Ola: “Those rebels, you know, they’re lunatics.”

Michael: “Maybe so — but it occurred to me. The soldiers are paid to fight — the rebels aren’t.”

Roth: What does that tell you?

Michael: They can win.

The man in Harlem

Fidel’s trip to New York in 1960 to attend the UN General assembly was another remarkable moment in his life. Ties between the U.S. and Cuba had already turned sour. He checked into New York’s swanky Midtown hotel first, but stormed out of it a few hours later, citing the unfair treatment meted out to the Cuban delegation by the hotel management.

The hotel had demanded a $10,000 payment in advance to cover any damage the Cubans could cause. Fidel first threatened to pitch a camp in Central Park. “We are mountain people. We are used to sleeping in the open air,” he told reporters. He didn’t do that anyway, but instead checked into Hotel Theresa in Harlem, an old decaying hotel which was the meeting place for New York’s African Americans and Working class leaders.

He met Malcom X at the hotel. The Soviets turned it into a high spectacle drama when Nikita Khrushchev went to Hotel Theresa for his first meeting with Fidel. The Malayalam short story, Nattellikalude Jeevitham by Pattathuvila Karunakaran, has a detailed description of Fidel’s stay in Harlem. In the story, the people in Harlem throng to see the man, in dirty olive green military fatigues, chanting “Fidel, Fidel”, forcing the authorities to call the Mounted Police to control the crowd. In his meeting with Dag Hjalmar Agne Carl Hammarskjöld, the second Secretary-General of the United Nations, Fidel said: “I go to a hotel where the humble are, the excluded ones, because the Cuban Revolution is the Revolution of the humble, by the humble and for the humble.” No head of state had ever stayed in a place like Harlem. 

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