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My Brief Encounter With Fidel Castro

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In 1960, the U.S. State Department was financing counterrevolutionary broadcasts to Cuba from a radio station on Swan Island in Honduras. Program content ranged from telling Cubans that their children would be taken away to warning them that a Russian drug was being added to their food and milk which would automatically turn them into Communists. My friend Lyle Stuart was national treasurer of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, which sponsored a trip to Cuba that December, and he invited me to come along.

On New Year's Eve, at an outdoor dinner celebrating the anniversary of the revolution, 15,000 Cubans, including 10,000 voluntary teachers, were bidding goodbye to the Year of Agrarian Reform and welcoming in the Year of Education. Although Fidel Castro accused the United States of planning to attack Cuba, the few hundred Americans who had been invited were greeted with applause, cheering and kiss-throwing. At midnight the Cubans sang "The 26th of July Song," and their cardboard plates went scaling through the air, mingling with a display of fireworks.

There was a full-scale learn-to-read-and-write campaign. In several industries, every employee would give one cent a day throughout the year to the Minister of Education. In the Sierra Maestra, where battles once raged, there were now under construction schools and dormitories for 20,000 children, to match the 20,000 Cubans who had lost their lives, many after torture, under the U.S.-supported Batista regime. At one of these educational communities, some young students removed the string that had been set up by a landscaping crew to mark off a cement foundation. Next morning, the school director lectured them about such immorality.

"Even a little thing like that," he explained, "does harm to the revolution."

The children of Cuba were being programmed for cooperation rather than competition. This sense of utter involvement in the revolution provided the rationalization Cubans gave when I asked about the lack of a free press, critical of the revolution.

"We get the New York Times," I was told, "and that's enough."

On January 2, there was a parade, with female soldiers marching in conga fashion, heavy tanks ripping away at well-paved streets, and a Macy's-type float that was actually the reconstructed American space rocket which had been fired from Cape Canaveral the previous November, only to be destroyed just after launching when it proved defective. Fragments had fallen in Cuba, killing a cow. Now the revolutionary slogan, "Venceremos" ("We Will Win") was temporarily changed to "We Will Win, With or Without Cows."

That evening, there was a reception at the Presidential Palace for several hundred visitors from around the world. When Castro arrived in the main ballroom, he was surrounded by an eager, protoplasmic circle of admirers and well-wishers. He stood tall and handsome in their midst, uniformed but hatless. The throng of people with Castro at the hub surged forward a few feet at a time toward the end of the ballroom and finally gave way to a line that formed to meet him, one by one. Some asked him to pose with them, which he did. A man with a camera stood on a plush chair for a better angle, but his wife, who was posing with Castro, yelled at him.

"Max! Don't stand on that chair! This is a palace!"

I gave Castro a copy of my magazine, The Realist, and requested an interview. He told me to set it up with his secretary. Then a palace guard handed him a cablegram from President Dwight Eisenhower -- in the final weeks of his lame-duck presidency -- calling off diplomatic relations with Cuba. I asked Castro for a statement.

"I do not think it is up to me to comment," he said, "since it is the United States that has broken relations. I will say only that Cuba is alert."

There was no official announcement at the Presidential Palace, but the news spread rapidly among the guests as Castro strode across the ballroom and departed.

I had brought Lawrence Ferlinghetti's Coney Island of the Mind to Cuba. The next day, I was in my hotel room, sitting on the bidet and reading his long poem, "I Am Waiting," while waiting in vain for a call from Fidel Castro's secretary. But Castro obviously had more important things to do than answer my questions. In retrospect, though, I would like to have asked him, "How do you feel about term limits?"