Reader’s Digest used to have a feature called “The Most Unforgettable Character I Ever Met.” Set me to thinking. Malcolm X ranks high, but my No. 1 choice would be Fidel Castro. I first met him in 1959 when he attended the U.N. session in the fall and, again, in a reprise in 1960.
I was born in Spain in the same province as Castro’s father, and I worked in a branch of the NYPD that guarded visiting dignitaries so I was assigned to Castro’s security.
We hit it off immediately, although I, like most Americans, had my doubts and fears about hints of communism. Harry Matthews of the NY Times had done a gripping series on Castro’s revolt against Fulgencio Batista.
Castro was, quite simply, irresistibly charismatic. He engaged me in vigorous debate with no thought to his rank or position. Breathtakingly egalitarian.
Nevertheless he concealed his true instincts—later to be emblazoned in the Cuban Missile Crisis.
While in a midtown hotel a disgruntled reporter wrote of Castro’s staff plucking chickens in their rooms. Outraged, Castro directed an aide to explore a move to the Hotel Theresa in the center of Harlem. I went with him to check out the rooms. In one he peeled away an oven cover from the wall, revealing a perfect square. Dark. What was it? It moved and scurried. Cockroaches. Ugh and double ugh.
Undaunted, they booked the rooms, flew in Huber Matos—the Army chief and only black at the new top—and scored a brilliant exploitation of America’s race agony.
I was there when Nikita Khrushchev visited and engaged Castro in a little hug and jig on Harlem’s sidewalk. Unforgettable imagery.
Castro proved a genuine and devoted revolutionary. Perhaps the most dynamic ever. The overclass (loosely labeled latifundistas) fled and the country was turned over to the underclass. Socialism triumphed. America was appalled and angry. And it lasted and lasted.
Only one little problem.
Socialism doesn’t work. It lacks the competitiveness, greed, energy and wealth-producing genius of capitalism. Too bad—but true. Lenin proved it in Russia, Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, Lazaro Cardenas in Mexico and a lot of other ideologues in between.
Capitalism—with its ruthless efficiency and merciless competition—creates great wealth. Most of Scandinavia learned to tame it, without abandoning it. We have yet to learn the lessons of re-distribution.
When I heard of Castro’s death I was saddened. The man gave of himself selflessly. What a contrast to Batista and his ilk.
Was Castro right?
He made Cuba literate, produced teachers, doctors, soldiers, and his government doesn’t appear to be the kleptocracy that bedeviled the continent. In person, his charisma, lack of self-importance or pomposity and devotion to the shirtless was magnetic.