Fidel Castro and Harlem: Political, Diplomatic, and Social Influences of the 1960 Visit to the Hotel Theresa

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Fidel Castro and Harlem: Political, Diplomatic, and Social Influences of the 1960 Visit to the Hotel Theresa.


Sunday, September 18, 1960, was described by one observer as a rainy, "raw, of New York in the fall." A legion of "world leaders was streaming in from all corners of, the globe to attend the 15th session of the United Nations (UN) General Assembly. At 4:32 P.M., "two hours later than expected," Premier Fidel Castro and "fifty additional officials, bodyguards, and correspondents" landed at Idlewild International Airport (now John F. Kennedy). Reporters characterized the 34 year-old-Cuban leader as "subdued," reluctant to smile for official photographers, and lacking the "bravura with which he responded to the enthusiastic welcome accorded him here in April, 1959, four months after seizing power in Havana."(2)

The strain of leadership, immense problems confronting Cuba's new government, and the deteriorating relations between the United States and Cuba had probably taken its toll on Castro. Nonetheless, he approached a "battery of microphones" and declared, "I...salute the people of the United States." His aides also assured attentive listeners that Castro's speech to the General Assembly "would not be pleasant for American ears."(3)

As the Cuban delegation left the airport, Castro waved to a mixed crowd of 2,000 vocal supporters. Many carried signs stating, "Welcome Fidel," "Venceremos" - Spanish for "We Shall Win," "Hands Off the Congo," and "Freedom for Algeria." They "had learned the location of his arrival only a half-hour before, after demonstrating exuberantly in the rain" outside the "main terminal for two hours." Hundreds of demonstrators proceeded to their vehicles and rode back to Manhattan with the Cubans in an "unofficial, people caravan," honking car horns and shouting "Viva Fidel! Viva Cuba!"(4)

These events marked the first few hours of Castro's historic ten day visit to New York City in 1960. Eight of these days were spent residing in Harlem's Theresa Hotel. From this base, Castro launched an effective propaganda war, established cordial and at times an adoring relationship with Harlem's Black community, communicated with grass roots Black leaders, and welded diplomatic influence upon African leaders. This paper will explore these themes and address the following questions: What social and historical factors made Harlem receptive to Cuba's revolutionary leader? What role did Malcolm X play in Castro's success? How did the Harlem stay contribute to Cuba's foreign policy? Did Castro's Harlem experience contribute to his perception of race relations in Cuba?


The Cuban delegation had had considerable problems confirming hotel accommodations prior to their arrival until the State Department and the United Nations urged cooperation. This resulted in the Cubans being housed at the Shelburne Hotel at Lexington Avenue and Thirty-Seventh Street. By Monday. September 19, this arrangement had deteriorated due to what the Cubans termed "unacceptable cash demands" and a "climate of inhospitality." The Shelburne's management had demanded an additional $10,000 security deposit and the hotel's owner, Edward Spatz, had made "repeated declarations to the press that he had no use for Dr. Castro and his politics." After a three hour meeting with State Department and UN officials and a direct protest to Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold, Castro decided to move to the Theresa Hotel on Seventh Avenue and 125th Street in Harlem. By 12:30 A.M., Tuesday, September 20, the Cuban delegation was safely relocated to their new headquarters.(5)

Castro had publicly threatened to pitch tents in Central Park until his housing problems were solved. "We are a mountain people," he declared, "we are used to sleeping in the open air." Aides at first thought this would embarrass the American government and "dramatize Cuba's global position as a victim of North American discriminatory treatment and aggression. …