Castro does a Harlem shuffle

Click to follow
The Independent Online
The outcast, the still-angry revolutionary, the misunderstood father of a mistreated land.

Fidel Castro had chosen his role for the evening and found the perfect venue: a brick church in a narrow avenue of boarded-up tenements in the heart of New York's own nation of poor and dispossessed: Harlem.

And the performance was a virtuoso one. No longer was the Cuban leader in the sharp double-breasted suit he had worn earlier to address the 50th anniversary session of the United Nations.

In Harlem he was in more familiar attire: fatigues, peaked cap and combat boots.

Standing centre-stage on a small round dais, 1,400 supporters ranged on semi-circular pews before him in the Abyssinian Baptist Church, Mr Castro swayed theatrically, waved his hands in dramatic gestures and indulged in 75 minutes of emotional oratory.

It was to Harlem that Fidel Castro fled in 1960 when, while attending the 15th birthday of the UN, he was ejected from his Manhattan hotel, allegedly for plucking chickens in his suite. And now he found himself rejected again, the only leader among some 140 in New York who was not on the invitation list for a gala dinner given by President Bill Clinton at the Public Library.

"This is the 35th anniversary of my first visit to this neighbourhood. And the incredible thing is, I am still expelled. I am still being left out of the dinners, as if nothing had changed in all these year, as if we were still in the days of the Cold War."

He had, he quipped, been cast once more as the "demon" and "a demon cannot be invited to dinner".

Even that suit did not escape his irony. "Once in a while I have to dress up like an honourable gentleman in a business suit.

"I did not study the career of looking like a gentleman; I have had to learn the trade along the way. But I said to myself: 'I am going to Harlem to see my friends and I asked myself why am I going to Harlem in a business suit?' "

Friends in Harlem? Well, perhaps a few. At each end of Odell Clark Place, where the church stands, there were small knots of chanting supporters, mostly local blacks.

Some spoke warmly of him; many others had just been drawn from their homes to see what the fuss was about. It was far from a huge turn-out, however, nothing on the scale of the crowds who gathered to see the heavyweight boxer Mike Tyson after he left jail in spring.

Princess Valdez, who had ventured out in a blue plastic bathcap, voiced mild interest in the Cuban leader. "I think he's a helluva man just to have lasted that long," she says. S.X Austin, a trainee on Wall Street, admires his "uncompromising stature". And he adds: "There is an historic reverberation, a vibration with him coming back to Harlem."

As Mr Castro speaks, a small confrontation develops at the corner of Odell Clark and Malcolm X Boulevard.

On one side of the street there are the Castro supporters shouting for an end to the Cuban embargo; on the other, a passionate group of exiled Cubans pleading for the embargo to be maintained.

A large road-gritting truck from the City Sanitation Department is manoeuvred between them.

"They like Castro because they think he is not a racist," rails Avenol Franco, aged 32. "They are right: he is not a racist. He kills blacks and whites in Cuba."