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FLASHBACK: Fidel Castro's Controversial 1960 Trip to NYC

By Paul DeBenedetto | November 26, 2016 1:15pm | Updated on November 28, 2016 2:46pm
 Fidel Castro at a 1960 meeting of the United Nations General Assembly.
Fidel Castro at a 1960 meeting of the United Nations General Assembly.
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Warren K. Leffler (via the Library of Congress)

The world was shocked by news of former Cuban President Fidel Castro's death Friday night, at the age of 90. Castro, a man who started as a revolutionary figure before becoming vilified by many as a dictator, was nonetheless a towering figure in world history.

And one moment that stands out in his long history happened right here in New York, during the 1960 United Nations General Assembly — a whirlwind trip filled with controversy, that ended with a record-setting 4 hour 29 minute speech that stands as the longest in U.N. history.

Castro's trip to New York in 1960 was his first since a friendly visit with Richard Nixon shortly after the Cuban Revolution in 1959. But the tone of the visit was very different this time around: between trips, the Cuban prime minister nationalized all U.S. businesses in Cuba, banned land ownership by non-Cubans and grew closer to Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, according to a piece from History.com.

In the city, tensions were high, according to stories published at the time. Anti-Castro and anti-Khrushchev protesters picketed outside the United Nations building and the Soviet U.N. Mission, including five hunger strikers who collapsed and were hospitalized. A 9-year-old girl was shot and killed in the crossfire of a clash between Castro supporters and foes outside a restaurant near Eighth Avenue and 51st Street.

Castro's arrival was met by 2,000 people at Idlewild airport, including people with signs that read "Welcome Fidel," according to the New York Times. But his arrival was greeted less enthusiastically by others.

One local hotel that originally accepted the Cuban delegation balked once it learned Castro would be among the group, according to the Times. The U.N. and the U.S. State Department helped corral a room at the Shelburne Hotel, at Lexington Avenue and 37th Street. But that, too, was short lived: Castro stormed out of the hotel one day after alleging "unacceptable cash demands," and threatened to sleep in Central Park.

"We are mountain people," he reportedly said at the time. "We are used to sleeping in the open air."

The hotel fiasco almost caused an international incident, with Castro's brother Raul, in charge of Cuba during the U.N. meetings, threatening the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo, according to reports.

But the Cubans eventually secured lodging at the Hotel Theresa in Harlem. There, he met with Khrushchev and Malcolm X, and his aides flew a Cuban flag high above the hotel, as hundreds crowded outside the Theresa for a chance to view the infamous leader.

The General Assembly itself continued to raise tensions. President Eisenhower excluded Castro from a pre-assembly meeting. On the first day of the assembly, Castro refused to applaud after Eisenhower's remarks, while later praising remarks by Khrushchev and Yugoslavian communist leader Josip Broz Tito. 

When it was time for his own remarks, Castro didn't mince words. The four-and-a-half hour speech, which remains a U.N. record today, called out the United States for its role in Cuban foreign policy, and accused American leaders of trying to topple his new government. He called then-Senator John F. Kennedy, a presidential candidate at the time, "an illiterate and ignorant millionaire." He praised the U.S.S.R., and asked for global support. The lengthy speech pushed a U.N. steering committee back a full day, according to the Times.

The Cuban leader returned to New York City in 1995 and received a warm welcome in The Bronx.

Castro would go on to lead Cuba until 2008, when he stepped down from his position, and he made additional trips to the U.N. throughout that time.

But no trip was filled with as much controversy as the first time Castro addressed the world in New York City.