Reflections on the Passing of Fidel Castro and the U.S.-Cuba Relationship by Wolfsonian–FIU Chief Librarian Francis Luca

This past Friday evening, President Raul Castro announced on Cuban television the death of his older brother, Fidel. The date was not without historical significance, being the sixtieth anniversary of their setting out aboard Granma, the leaky yacht that carried the two brothers and 80 other revolutionaries from Mexican exile back to Cuba to continue the fight against the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. After years of fighting a guerrilla campaign in the Sierra Madre mountains, Fidel’s forces were able to push back Batista’s army, forcing him to resign and take flight in the middle of the night of January 1, 1959. Within days, Fidel Castro triumphantly rode into Havana, inaugurating his own monopolistic half-century long rule over Cuba. Ultimately Fidel managed to survive more than 600 assassination attempts and remain in power through ten U.S. presidencies before ill-health forced him to step down in 2008 and hand power over to his brother, Raul.


Author’s photograph, Santiago de Cuba, July, 2016

Although greeted by many in the Cuban exile community here in South Florida with street celebrations, Fidel’s death at age ninety—years after relinquishing power and battling health issues in relative seclusion, felt anti-climactic to me. Born one year after the Cuban missile crisis, and having lived here in Miami Beach for more than twenty-five years, I had heard so many prognostications of Castro’s death and/or the fall of his despotic regime. After teaching a film and history undergraduate course on the U.S-Cuba relationship last spring semester at Florida International University and organizing an exhibition on the U.S.-Cuba encounter in the pre-Castro era at The WolfsonianFIU museum, I flew to Cuba this past July and spent two and a half weeks in the country. While there, I had even heard open speculation by some younger Cubans who believed that the older of the “two dinosaurs” had already passed, and that Raul had suppressed the news. If Fidel was rarely seen in person as he wrestled with health problems in his final months, in the lead up to the anniversary of the holiday commemorating the 26th of July Movement, one could hardly avoid seeing his image on signs and billboards from one end of the island to the other.




Author’s photographs, Havana and Santiago, Cuba, July, 2016

Not unlike José Martí—(the “Apostle of Cuban Independence” who spent some time as an exile raising support for his revolutionary movement in New York, Ybor City, Tampa, and Key West, Florida)—Fidel also found temporary refuge in the United States.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Promised Gift

Fidel’s first U.S. engagement, ironically enough, was in 1948 when he and his new bride honeymooned in Miami Beach, and afterwards visited relatives in New York City. When the U.S. honeymoon was over, Fidel drove a newly purchased Lincoln Continental down to Florida, and took it home via the Key West ferry.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Promised Gift


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Collection

In November, 1949, Castro received death threats after publicly denouncing President Carlos Prio Socarrás’ coddling of violent gang members at the University of Havana, and went into hiding in Miami for a few weeks. After returning home to Cuba, Castro began campaigning to represent Havana’s poorest districts in the 1952 congressional elections to see Fulgencio Batista seize power in a coup d’etat in March and declare himself president. Joining an underground resistance movement, Fidel planned and took part in a disastrous attack on the Moncada barracks and armory on July 25th, was arrested, tried, and given a 15-year sentence.


Author’s photograph, Santiago de Cuba, July, 2016

Released after serving just two years because of an amnesty deal, in 1955 Fidel again fled to the U.S. There he organized rallies and demonstrations, made radio and newspaper interviews and speeches, and tried to drum up financial support from among the 26,000 Cuban exiles then living in Miami, Tampa, and Key West. Moving to Mexico City, he recruited an invasion force that returned to Cuba aboard the Granma. The fiery young revolutionary won over much of the Cuban population and Americans reading about his struggle in the Sierra Madre mountains and his determination to force the corrupt Batista “cleptocracy” from power. Batista’s New Year’s flight and Castro’s subsequent assent to power in the political vacuum was widely heralded to be a positive development in early 1959.


Courtesy of Vicki Gold Levi, Private Collection

Famed graphic artist and caricaturist, Conrado Walter Massaguer captured the hopeful mood of many of his fellow Cubans.



Courtesy of Leonard Finger, Private Collection

Many Americans first welcomed the change from Batista’s cronies to Castro’s bearded revolutionaries, as is evident from a couple of Hollywood “B” movies released in 1959. As a fervent supporter of Fidel and the insurrection, American actor Errol Flynn funded and starred in a campy docudrama homage to the revolutionaries titled, Cuban Rebel Girls.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Francis Xavier Luca & Clara Helena Palacio Luca

A better low-budget Hollywood film noir, Pier Five, Havana was filmed in Cuba in the immediate aftermath of the rebel victory, with the villains pictured as mobsters and Batista-sympathizers plotting to take back power.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Promised Gift

Although the movie attests to popular American support for the revolution that overthrew Batista, the film would be consigned to historical obscurity for years to come as relations quickly deteriorated between the Castro regime and the United States government. The vast majority of films about Cuba produced for an American audience from the 1960s forward presented Castro and the revolutionaries in a far more ambivalent, if not wholly unsympathetic, light.





Francis Xavier Luca, Private Collection

As Castro revealed himself to be less interested in holding democratic elections and more interested in retaining the reins of power, establishing a Communist state, and courting a Soviet alliance, U.S.-Cuba relations quickly soured, leading to the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion, Missile Crisis, and an economic embargo that has persisted to this day.

Now, more than a half-century later, only the older generation of Americans and Cuban exiles remember how relatively cordial relations were before the 1959 revolution. At that time, the island nation had been an American playground for honeymooners and pleasure-seekers, and Cuban musicians and performers had revolutionized and transformed the American music scene from the 1920s through the 1950s.




The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Promised Gift

Following the passage of U.S. Prohibition in 1919, thirsty American socialites and “snow birds” began making annual winter migrations to the island in ever increasing flocks to the tropical “paradise” where rum and rumba held sway.





(“Let’s Go to Cuba” subtitle: “Before They Drink the Darn’d Town Dry”!)

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Promised Gifts

Hollywood films such as Havana Widows (1933) and Rumba (1935) helped to popularize Havana as a tourist destination and to create an American craze for the scandalously sensual Afro-Cuban music and dance.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Promised Gift

Advertisements, photographs, and magazine cover art from The Wolfsonian library also document and caricature the encounters between Cubans and Americans, both real and imagined, comical and commercial.







The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Promised Gifts

After a travel hiatus during the Great Depression and Second World War, American tourists returned to the casinos, nightclubs, and cabarets of Havana by the droves in the 1950s.



In its mid-century heyday, Havana had the repute of being the “Monte Carlo of the Americas,” and the “Las Vegas of the tropics,” offering visitors a rich nightlife and incredible array of talented Cuban musicians and dancers, showgirls and striptease performers.





The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Promised Gifts


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Promised Gifts

Much like today, the American tourists flying down to Cuba simply were following the lead of glamorous celebrities photographed in the Cuban capital, or featured in numerous Hollywood movies and musicals hyping up Havana.


Rita Hayworth at La Bodeguita del Medio, Havana


Liberace photographed in Havana, 1954


Ed Sullivan photographed at the Gran Casino Nacional in Havana

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Promised Gifts


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Francis Xavier Luca & Clara Helena Palacio Luca


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Collection

With Fidel’s passing, I believe that we have an opportunity to continue President Obama’s diplomatic overtures to the Cuban government and to more fully reestablish political, social, and economic relations between our countries. As close neighbors, Cuba and the United States have much to offer one another. Cuba needn’t regress into an American playground for tipplers, gamblers, and hedonists, nor become a virtual economic colony or appendage of the United States. If both our countries can learn from the mistakes and missteps of the past, we might now have the chance to forge new “ties of singular intimacy” and to invest in a future promising mutually-beneficial exchanges such as those that had formerly enriched the cultural heritage of both nations.



The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Promised Gifts

~ by "The Chief" on December 1, 2016.

One Response to “Reflections on the Passing of Fidel Castro and the U.S.-Cuba Relationship by Wolfsonian–FIU Chief Librarian Francis Luca”

  1. Frank, I really enjoyed the article, your photos and the selections from the Wolfsonian Collection. I am just mystified of no inclusion of a photo from the Woody Allen movie, “Bananas”?

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