Me and Fidel By Robert Ellis Smith
In the beginning of my long career in journalism, I often found myself meeting major newsmakers simply by default. Most seasoned reporters were not interested in the off-hours assignments, and as the junior member of the staff I was eager to take them. As a reporter, I spent significant time with Jimmy Hoffa and Eleanor Roosevelt and Robert Frost and Ayn Rand and Robert F. Kennedy and even Zsa Zsa Gabor in this way.
And then there was Fidel Castro. Ten weeks after becoming prime minister of Cuba through a revolution in 1959, Castro toured the East Coast of the U.S., in search of financial and diplomatic support from the U.S. He was widely regarded as a hot shot collectivist, an anti-American who would not be around long.
After getting an audience with newly appointed Secretary of State Christian Herter in the Eisenhower Administration but no support at all, Castro was scheduled to speak to a mass audience at Harvard University. The Harvard Law School Forum could always be counted on to invite to the university controversial speakers who, in the 1950s were bad news for virtually all other university audiences around the nation. There was no doubt from contemporary press coverage that most of the nation vigorously considered the invitation disloyal to the U.S.
I was a first-year reporter for the Harvard Crimson, the undergraduate newspaper. I kibitzed on a discussion among top editors about coverage of the Castro visit. Because it was to be on a Saturday – a Saturday in April just before exam time – they could not find enough staff members to cover the event. I volunteered, they accepted, and they gave me a camera to take with me.
The yellow press pass around my neck – which I possess to this day – was like gold to me. First, there was a reception of no more than 50 professors and students at the Faculty Club. Castro was engaged in animated discussions with anybody and anyone, in English and in Spanish. And I spent some of my time getting to know the press attaché for the infant Cuban government. (Students today would call it “sucking up.”) I snapped a few informal pictures.
Harvard’s President Nathan Pusey, whom we covered regularly, had announced that he would be out of town for the weekend, thus avoiding a tricky decision whether to attend the speech and introduce the head of state. Shortly after the Castro trip, the Harvard Crimson was able to show that Pusey in fact had not been out of town.
Instead, Pusey delegated the assignment to McGeorge Bundy, then the Dean of the Faculty and a popular teacher of world politics. Just 22 months later, Bundy would leave Harvard and become national security adviser in the heavily Harvard-oriented Kennedy Administration.
It was clear at the Faculty Club that Bundy, who liked to pal around with students and even more with student-journalists, relished his assignment.
University officials had determined that Harvard Stadium, the 55-year-old Grecian football venue with dark niches hidden by giant columns, was not a secure place for an apparently volatile presence like Fidel Castro. Instead, Harvard hurriedly constructed a formal speaker’s platform displaying the university seal, just a few steps from the stadium, a half-mile across the Charles River from the campus in Cambridge, Mass. As I recall, most of the 10,000 attendees stood during the speech. I know that I did. As he spoke on the night of April 26, 1959, I snapped another picture of Castro, a migrant farmer’s illegitimate son who had not completed college.
Castro had taken over power only the previous January and had not yet established his reputation worldwide, including his reputation as a speaker who went on for hours. I cannot say that I remember much about what he said that mild and clear night. I do remember that most students after the talk remained curious and vaguely supportive of the new Cuban leader.
The motorcade then went down the Charles River to Boston and left Castro and the press corps at the Parker House Hotel, a favored hangout for Boston’s politicians.
I noticed that the grown-up reporters left the group then to file their stories on the event. After all, they had deadlines for their Sunday editions and for the 11 p.m. Saturday night news programs. But student journalists had no such urgency. We did not publish editions on Sundays. In fact, that’s a major reason why as a freshman I was able to get that press pass.
We started to chat among ourselves, and I believe that I was influential in urging the students to stick around the lobby. “Something might happen,” I thought.
Sure enough, at about 11 p.m., the press aide whom I had cultivated appeared in the lobby and, seemingly pleased, said to us, “If you stay around, ‘Dr. Castro’ may come downstairs to chat for a moment. He likes students.”
And within 15 minutes, the elevator doors opened and the bearded general appeared. As he had been all day, he was dressed in the Army fatigues that the world would soon associate with this charismatic and mysterious leader of a tiny island nation. Some of the college journalists in the group of six or seven offered questions in Spanish. Then those of us who spoke only English asked a few.
Castro appeared wounded actually that the Department of State had rejected him. “I love America,” he said in acceptable English phrasings. “This is not my first time here. We love your cars in Cuba. I love baseball.” Years ago, he had spent a three-month honeymoon in New York City, sponsored by his affluent in-laws.
“No, now I have to go to Moscow to see what the Soviet Union can do,” Castro continued in the hotel lobby. “My people are not thriving. We need assistance right away. I have very little in common with Eastern Europe. I am driven to seek help there because America has said that it will not help.”
“So what are you studying?” he asked me and I told him that I spent most of my time writing for the newspaper. “Good!” he said. “Harvard is a great place. So is B.U., B.C., Emerson, Northeastern, all of them. MIT, of course.” Then there was a short discourse for us all on the importance of university studies, and a reminder that Cuba had good universities and that he considered education important.
Castro’s obvious interest in students apparently came from the time he studied at law school in Havana, where he was a leftist agitator. That may be the reason some associates addressed him as “Dr. Castro,” even though he apparently never received a degree.
His understanding of the U.S., just in this short exposure, was striking. He knew not to comment on the absence of Harvard’s President, and did not. At the time I assumed the university’s president was out of town, as we had been told, and I did not mention the topic.
That was it, perhaps 15 minutes with Castro. He waved to us and headed upstairs. I was smitten.
Years later, one of my neighbors when I lived on Capitol Hill, seven blocks behind the U.S. Capitol, was a CIA analyst who specialized in Latin American affairs. He was dismissive of what I called “my soft spot for Castro.” As with other leaders I have encountered over the years, I did not ignore the treacheries of the Castro years in Cuba, but I felt that the man had attempted to be friendly with the U.S. from the beginning and had been spurned. American government operatives had sought to kill him. And this was before anti-Castro feelings among the crucial voters in South Florida had crippled American politicians, Republican and Democratic.
One reason for my continued admiration for Canada as a nation and Canadians as a people is the fact that they have found a way to stay in contact with Cuba without compromising any principles. My friends in Canada continue to travel to and from Cuba without any problems. Some of my friends in the U.S. often accompany them; they circumvent U.S. restrictions by flying to Montreal then having friendly Cuban customs agents refrain from stamping their American passports with any telltale signs that they have entered Cuba. Despite these inconveniences imposed by the American government, Harvard to this day manages to send a select group of students to Cuba to study each year.
Twice, when he was writing a book about Castro, I urged my CIA acquaintance to listen to my recollections of Fidel Castro so that they could enhance the author’s full portrait of the man. My friend never even wanted to hear them. This is what he said after my last attempt, in June 2012:
“You have told me about your meeting with Fidel at Harvard. It was during his whistle stop tour to drum up popular support in American opinion circles, in April 1959.
“But it is time for you to update your thinking about him. A lot has happened since your encounter, and his record after so many decades in power is now quite extensively revealed and studied.
“The best places to start with a reappraisal are my two books.
“I’d like to know what you think should you read one or both. The Fidel you remember so fondly is not the same man who ruled as a brutal dictator for nearly five decades.”
For those five decades, I have hoped for an equitable relationship between Castro’s Cuba and my own country. It has been delayed, I believe, because of an increasingly crucial quirk in American politics. Florida is a decisive state in presidential politics and the old-line Cuban voters in the Miami area can often make the difference between victory and defeat statewide. No American politician dares confront that reality.
I have now researched a little more about the Castro I met as a 19-year-old in my first year away from home in college. This new head of state was merely 14 years older than I was as he addressed the world that night in April 1959.
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Robert Ellis Smith, president of the Harvard Crimson in 1961-62, has published Privacy Journal monthly newsletter since 1974. He is the author of “Ben Franklin’s Web Site: Privacy and Curiosity From Plymouth Rock to the Internet.”
Copyright © Robert Ellis Smith 2014