Castro waves to crowds outside the Statler Hotel in New York City.
IMAGE: JOHN DUPREY/NY DAILY NEWS VIA GETTY IMAGES
In April 1959, when I was all of fifteen and a student at Scarsdale High, I made the trek with by buddies from the 'burbs to the city to see our new hero Fidel Castro speak in Central Park.
It's fifty-seven years ago now, but I still remember that night well. How could I forget? It was high drama the likes of which I had never seen, people streaming in from all over New York, klieg lights splayed across Sheep Meadow. The Daily News reported thirty-five thousand people squeezed into the park.
I couldn't get up that close, but close enough to see Fidel in his familiar beard and fatigues, gesticulating with his hand in the air, speaking in Spanish while the crowd around me, largely Dominicans, screamed "Viva! Viva!" and "Viva la revoluçion!" with a fervor not even given, later, the Beatles or the Stones. They wanted their country liberated, just as Castro had supposedly freed Cuba from the dastardly Batista.
I am loath to admit it now, but I remember shouting "Viva!"—though somewhat tentatively—myself. I didn't speak much Spanish then.
What I was watching, indeed participating in, was my generation being seduced. I didn't know it at the time. Almost no one did. But a mass seduction is what it was happening that would last to the present day, metaphorically and actually. It was an early version of the events of 1968.
Fidel was seducing all of us and he was seducing himself, convincing himself of his own importance, of his own greatness, a greatness and importance that led him to murder his old compadres Soviet-style, imprison gays, and impoverish his people for decades (although not himself—he ended up a billionaire) in a country that amounted to a giant jail for some bizarre and truly sick Marxist vision of the good.
Still, over the years, even with reports of what was happening, even while half of Cuba seemed to be fleeing to Florida, it was hard for my generation to escape his allure and that of his sadistic, legendary, glamorous partner-in-crime, El Ché, Comandante Ernesto Guevara, subject of so many dishonest songs and movies.
That allure, although somewhat diminished, had continued for me up until 1979 when I visited Cuba as a delegate to the First Festival of the New Latin American Cinema and got to hobnob with the likes of Nobelist Gabriel Garcia Márquez—himself a pal of Fidel's, able to drive a swanky new Mercedes on an island filled with aging DeSotos and live in a posh finca while the proles, under surveillance by the secret police, subsisted in decaying coldwater flats with no plumbing. And with Régis Debray—the French "philosopher" who chronicled Ché's exploits in the Bolivian mountains and became the most famous journalist of "the revolution."
I should have been impressed. And maybe I was in a way, but not for long, because the truth was there in front of me—the reality of Cuba itself. It was—you could find no other words—a communist shithole.
After a week, I was desperate to get out, as were the mostly leftist filmmakers who were with me, one of them even a member of the sainted "Hollywood Ten." The problem was, getting out wasn't so easy. We were stuck for ten hours at Havana Airport waiting for our semi-illegal charter flight from Miami to be allowed to land. I don't have to tell you that I and the rest of the group were sweating—and not just from the humid weather. Suppose we had to spend the rest of our lives in the "Marxist paradise"?
Finally, our plane was allowed to land, due to a special dispensation from Raul Castro, Fidel's tyrant brother now in control of the island, and we departed. In some ways, I date the end of my romance with the left from that experience, although the seduction— call it the Seduction of Fidel—was not completely over for me. It took years fully to dwindle away, finally to be extinguished on September 11, 2001.
Needless to say, the Seduction of Fidel was never fully extinguished for the current president of the United States. Indeed, I suspect it still burns relatively brightly for Barack Obama.
We can see this in his statement on Castro's death. No mention of the despotism under which the Cuban people lived or their suffering. Obama refers instead to decades of "political differences," as if the brutal totalitarian oppression of the Cubans was merely a policy disagreement.
On the other hand, our President-elect Trump writes "Fidel Castro’s legacy is one of firing squads, theft, unimaginable suffering, poverty and the denial of fundamental human rights."
Tell it like it is, Donald. What a difference! What an improvement!