“How can we help President Obama?”

To me, this is a familiar street corner. It’s the corner of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Blvd. (7th Avenue) and 125th Street in Harlem, Manhattan, New York. It was here at this locale on Election Night, 2008 and also at Frederick Douglass Avenue (8th Avenue) and 125th Street that the TV cameras were trained.  The beautiful white building that the camera is focusing on is The Hotel Theresa.

There’s a lot of history connected with this hotel. I used to gaze at it a lot as I waited for the bus to take me home to 132nd Street near where the Lafayette Theatre used to be. Malcolm X had his offices in the building and sometimes stayed there. Martin Luther King, Jr. also stayed here when he was visiting New York. Other black celebrities also spent time there: Josephine Baker, Ray Charles, Jimi Hendrix, and Dinah Washington. Clinton’s Commerce Secretary Ron Brown grew up at The Theresa; his father was manager of the building; and young Charlie Rangel was once a desk clerk there.

But The Hotel Theresa is also the place where Fidel Castro came to stay with his retinue after he defied the New York downtown hotel who said his cash wasn’t good enough for a suite of rooms on his visit to the United Nations in 1960.

Today, one would not understand the excitement that Castro’s stay at the Theresa engendered. For one thing, Castro is part-black himself. His mother was biracial, and as I understand it, was considered by many to have bewitched his father into creating a second family. That is, she knew voudou. Blacks were considered the low end of the societal totem pole in Cuba, though they were among the first of those who fought for independence from Spain.

For another, Castro’s defiance of the downtown interests played right into the hands of those who wanted to see segregation to go down in all aspects of New York life at that time. And then, there was a definite Pan-Africanist/Black Nationalist presence in Harlem at that time who saw Castro’s taking power in Cuba, as well as the independence movements in Africa, as a way of sticking it to the State Department and the CIA.  The Dulles brothers, who ran both agencies, aimed at stopping Communism everywhere, but their policies were considered both neo-colonialist and neo-imperialist.

Castro’s retinue, which took up 80 rooms of The Theresa, cost $800 per day. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev took the unprecedented step of coming farther up Manhattan than any important white leader had come in decades by coming to visit Castro at The Theresa (after that, in October of that year, JFK campaigned for the presidency from the hotel). It was political theatre at its finest. Castro gesticulating, smoking large Cuban cigars at press conferences; Khrushchev blustering and pounding his shoe on his U.N. desk.

Of course, there were jokes by black comedians–Dick Gregory and Redd Foxx come to mind–at the time who said that Castro and his retinue were eating freshly-killed chickens in the suites, brought up in elevators clucking and flapping their feathers in crates,  expressly for the Cuban leader. The jokes were a way for black people to say that Castro belonged, even though he was a Communist.

Well, that was then, this is now.  The Hotel Theresa closed in 1967 and reopened as an office complex, The Theresa Towers. Castro is much older now, no longer the vigorous El Jefe who dodged assassination attempts by the Mob and the CIA.  Although no longer president, he has been in power longer than anyone had expected, including members of the American Left who believe that he overstayed far too long in his long quarrel with the United States, squandering opportunities for normalcy. Remaining in power has rendered him without younger, incorruptible successors who could lead Cuba in other, less volatile directions. Castro is now facing his eleventh American president, a young and vigorous and biracial Barack Obama.  When Pope John Paul II died, he was seen to be visibly moved; the pontiff had visited Cuba after Castro relaxed restrictions against religion.  When some of us are old, we embrace some of the things of our childhood we previously had no use for. Castro is not the same man that he was in 1960. 

His younger countrymen, on the other hand, would rather stay under the thrall of computers, MTV and iPhones, than sign up to wage revolution and rebellion in Latin America like heroic Ché. Though its citizens continue as defiant–on the surface–as Castro, much of Cuba is impoverished and poorly managed; gays and lesbians are considered detriments to the revolution and are persecuted and killed; blacks, after some improvements, are said to still be third-class citizens there. After China, it is said, Cuba is the second-worst “prison in the world for journalists.”  And Cuba has been accused of being a conduit in the drug cartels since it has been cash-poor since the Embargo. 

A week or so ago, three members of the Congressional Black Caucus came to visit Fidel Castro in retirement.  No doubt it was one of his good days; he appeared healthy and in good spirits.   Although those members, Reps. Laura Richardson, Barbara Lee, and Bobby Rush were accused of obsequiousness and fawning, it’s now apparent that they may have carried a message to Fidel Castro.  He certainly had a message for Barack Obama:  “How can we help President Obama?” in normalizing relationships once more between the United States and Cuba.

Today, President Obama announced the relaxation of travel, mail, remittance and business restrictions between the two countries.  Additionally, President Obama will also make it possible for the United States to share satellite communications with the island, allowing its residents to have unprecedented access to cable, cellphone, computer and other modern conveniences we take for granted here.  The world will open up to Cubans as it never has before in the half-century of the Castro brothers’ rule.   With news and information, as well as seeing the products, goods, largesse and services available to Westerners, the Administration thinks, the Cuban citizenry will see and hear another side to stories, including their own. 

There will be more from the Administration before a U.S.-Latin American conference convenes in the next few weeks.  But the Embargo still remains, Obama wants to use it as leverage to press for reforms in Cuba.  There will be dialogue, there will be meetings.  There won’t be any shouting or smoke-filled rooms. How can we help Cuba? It will be one step at a time for his people, but for Fidel Castro, after the bluster and bravado of previous years, normalizing relations can’t come any faster, and may yet come too late.

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~ by blksista on April 13, 2009.

3 Responses to ““How can we help President Obama?””

  1. The embargo needs to end. Castro won. We lost. Time to turn a new chapter in political relations. The Vietnamese killed 58 THOUSAND Americans and we trade with them.

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  2. I really do believe that the embargo needs to be lifted. The US is no position to judge how another country run especially when we consider its actions in the last eight years. They are not punishing Castro for his defiance they are hurting the Cuban people. I furthermore believe that they need to return GITMO to the Cuban people.

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    • I wish Obama could lift everything NOW. But he’s under the gun not to change policy too soon.

      I also agree about Gitmo, too. Why should we have American bases in everyone’s backyard? And nuclear weapons? I think it’s ridiculous, really. Some of this Fifties’ paranoia has got to go…

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