[Documents menu] Documents menu

Audience in Harlem Cheers Castro

By Anita Snow, The Washington Post, Sunday 10 September 2000; A0

NEW YORK, Sept. 9 -- A church full of admiring American supporters in Harlem erupted in applause early today when Cuban leader Fidel Castro told them how pleased he was to shake hands earlier in the week with President Clinton.

"I feel satisfied by my respectful and civilized behavior with the president of the country that had been host of the summit," Castro told the invitation-only crowd at towering Riverside Church.

It was the first time Castro had publicly mentioned the much-discussed encounter between the two leaders at the end of a luncheon at the U.N. Millennium Summit, a gathering of about 160 world leaders. The news was especially encouraging to Americans who support the normalization of relations between the two countries.

Back in his olive green uniform after spending a week in the black suits he favors for presidential gatherings, Castro told the crowd at the end of a far-ranging address about how he encountered Clinton face-to-face for the first time on Wednesday afternoon.

Suddenly, he found himself in a line of leaders being greeted by the American president.

"I couldn't run away to prevent passing by that point," Castro said, growing animated at his speech, which early on was punctuated by the crowd's shouts of "Fidel! Fidel! Fidel!"

"With all dignity and courtesy I greeted him," the Cuban president said. "He did the same, and I moved ahead in line. It would have been extravagant and rude to do any other thing. The whole thing lasted less than 20 seconds."

More than 2,000 people attended the 8 p.m. Friday event organized by Cuban solidarity groups, with many of the invited guests lining up outside the church as early as 4 p.m.

The Cuban leader evidently went straight to the airport shortly after the gathering wound up.

Castro's plane landed at 8:47 a.m. this morning in Havana, where he was greeted at the airport by other top officials, including Vice President Carlos Lage, Cuba's Radio Reloj reported.

In Harlem, Castro was clearly moved by the affection shown him by the Americans who surrounded him, especially when they sang "Happy Birthday" in belated recognition of his turning 74 in mid-August.

"Dear brothers and sisters," he told them, hugging several children who gave him a plastic-wrapped bouquet of flowers. "You have been extremely generous and kind with us.

"It is only because of miracles that I have survived all these years," alluding to the many assassination attempts against the communist leader during his 41 years in power.

"I came to Harlem because I knew it was here that I would find my best friends," he added. Among those in the church were Reps. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) and Jose E. Serrano (D-N.Y.) and the Rev. Lucius Walker Jr. of Pastors for Peace, all longtime opponents of the 38-year-old U.S. embargo against Cuba.

The Riverside Church is an institution in Harlem, where it played a major organizing role in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. It was from this pulpit that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke out against the Vietnam War, and the church one of South African leader Nelson Mandela's first stops in America after his release from prison a decade ago.

Castro has great fondness for Harlem and for black Americans in general, having first visited the neighborhood during a 1960 trip to the United Nations for that year's General Assembly.

Refused at the Shelburne Hotel in midtown, the delegation of bearded guerrillas who had recently assumed power on the island moved to Harlem's Hotel Theresa. Thousands of Harlem residents crowded the streets to cheer them.

There, Castro met with black leader Malcolm X and met separately with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. Gamal Abdel Nassar of the United Arab Republic also paid his respects to Castro at the hotel, which has since been torn down.

copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company