New York is really two cities: one, the financial capital of the world where glittering hotels, boutiques, theaters and restaurants lure the wealthy; the other, a hard, gray place where millions of poor workers must sell body and soul to occupy a few miserable feet of floor space.
So is it any wonder that, in this city of the best of times and the worst of times, there should be two such different reactions to the visit of Cuban President Fidel Castro?
The oppressed greeted him passionately. They packed the Abyssinian Baptist Church and cheered until they were hoarse on the historic occasion of Fidel's return to Harlem.
They mobbed him when he dined in the Bronx at the invitation of the Puerto Rican representative there, Jose Serrano.
Starting with a march of several thousand people on Oct. 21, there were strong demonstrations of support for Cuba and Fidel during every one of the four full days he spent in New York.
And even the right-wing New York Post, a newspaper that drips venom for the Cuban leader, had to admit that the applause for Fidel when he spoke to the United Nations General Assembly was much longer and louder than the desultory clapping for Bill Clinton.
Clinton and New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, on the other hand, made a big show of not inviting Fidel Castro to official receptions for the 180-or-so heads of state visiting New York on the 50th anniversary of the founding of the UN. That fell flat. Pomp and ceremony they had, but the excitement went elsewhere.
What about the big bankers and corporate leaders who really run New York and are the bosses of both Giuliani and Clinton--what did they do?
The Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank for some of the biggest in the bourgeoisie, invited Fidel to talk about what Cuba is doing to open up to foreign investment. They don't want to be left behind when other capitalist countries are doing business there. But when they move to drop some or all of the blockade that the U.S. has imposed on Cuba for almost 35 years, they want it to be on their terms.
This, too, was an exercise in how U.S. capitalist democracy works. Everyone should know that the power to decide what to do with the blockade lies with Wall Street, not with Sen. Jesse Helms or some right-wing Cubans in Miami.
It was when U.S. bankers, sugar companies and hotel magnates couldn't impose their will on Cuba any more that the U.S. government began its hostile campaign to overthrow the revolutionary government. But the art of bourgeois politics is to make it appear that this hostility to socialist revolution comes from the elected representatives of the people, not the unelected financial elite who really run the U.S.
Politicians like Clinton and Giuliani really understand this. They know it's their job to keep up the diatribe against Cuba, whipping up a lynch-mob spirit against Fidel Castro that is echoed in the tabloids, even while their superiors sit down to lunch with him.
In his Harlem speech, Fidel Castro quoted Abraham Lincoln's famous saying about how you can't fool all of the people all of the time. There was ample evidence of that on this trip.
The Cuban Revolution, after all, has kept its free health care and education while capitalist politicians like Giuliani are gutting social services in the United States. More and more workers here are fed up with the growing gap between the rich and everyone else. So they're not in the mood to blame Fidel Castro for the cuts in Medicare or the layoffs of employees with 20 years' seniority.
Admiration for Cuba's achievements and the integrity of its socialist leaders runs deep in the North American progressive movement. That was tangible at the demonstration on Oct. 21, organized by 80 groups under the auspices of the National Network on Cuba.
The weather was atrocious--gale-force winds behind torrential rains. But several thousand people stayed out in it for hours, rallying near the UN, marching across 42nd Street and then dancing in the rain to a Latin beat at Columbus Circle.
"We're not worried about the rain. This is a river of solidarity!" said Teresa Gutierrez, co-chair of the first rally, as she warmed up the crowd. And that spirit lasted all day.
George Harrison, who went through quadruple bypass surgery earlier this year, said it was his "duty to be here" to deliver a message of solidarity from the Irish republican movement.
Marisol Mirabet of the Afro-Cuban Society and Caridad More of the Cuban Small Business Association had both flown up from Miami to demand an end to the blockade.
Andres Gomez, head of the Antonio Maceo Brigade, brought two busloads of Cubans from Miami. They heartily cheered his words welcoming Fidel to New York.
Beth Lamont's placard reading "Peace for Cuba" was one of the few that survived the downpour because she covered it with clear plastic. She and her late husband, Corliss, a prominent humanist and life-long supporter of progressive causes, had together carried that very sign in earlier demonstrations.
Three striking Detroit newspaper workers had come from the picket lines with Ignacio Meneses of the U.S.-Cuba Labor Exchange. They denounced the blockade and asked for solidarity in their struggle with the media moguls.
Leslie Cagan of the Cuba Information Project introduced a string of notables at the closing rally and pledged that the solidarity movement would continue its work with renewed vigor.
Some who braved the storm on Saturday got to bask in the warmth of Harlem's reception for Fidel on Sunday night. Organizers of the event included the Rev. Lucius Walker of Pastors for Peace/Friendshipment Caravan and Elombe Brath of the Patrice Lumumba Coalition. The Harlem rally gave the Cuban leader a chance to reminisce in his familiar witty style--something he couldn't do in the five minutes allotted him and other heads of state at the UN.
For about two hours, he regaled the crowd with observations on why he felt so much more comfortable in fatigues than in a business suit, on how 40,000 Cuban internationalist troops had turned the tide against apartheid South Africa at the battle of Cuito Cuanavale in 1988, and on his visits with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and Egyptian president Nasser while staying at Harlem's Hotel Theresa in 1960.
These reminders of why the Black and Latino communities, in particular, feel so close to Cuba's struggle against imperialist domination repeatedly brought the audience to their feet.
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