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Even Though He's Embargoed, Castro's Impossible to Ignore

October 23, 1995|STANLEY MEISLER and HELAINE OLEN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

UNITED NATIONS — Despite attempts by Washington and New York officialdom to turn him into the Invisible Man, the irrepressible Fidel Castro emerged Sunday as one of the celebrities of the United Nations' 50th birthday celebration.

President Clinton and New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani pointedly left the Cuban president off the invitation lists for their receptions and dinners.

But an untroubled Castro grabbed attention anyway by meeting with U.S. business people seeking markets in Cuba, returning to Harlem (scene of one of his most famous exploits 35 years ago), delivering one of the best-received speeches at the summit and preening for an hourlong interview on CNN.

Americans found a much more subdued Castro on his first visit to the United States in 16 years than in the past. At the United Nations, the 69-year-old leader wore a double-breasted blue suit, although he switched to his trademark army fatigues at Harlem's Abyssinian Baptist Church. His long beard is now graying and carefully groomed.

Accustomed to whipping up crowds with hours of oratory, Castro limited his speech at the anniversary summit to the five minutes each leader was given, at least two hours shorter than his last speech to the U.N. General Assembly in 1979.

In fact, according to a White House aide, President Clinton peered across the General Assembly hall at Castro and said, "He's the only guy here who's better dressed than Warren Christopher," a reference to his own clothes-horse secretary of state.

But there were flashes of the old Castro as well, particularly at the Harlem church. "If the last time I went to Harlem I was wearing my fatigues, how can I go to Harlem dressed in my business suit?"

To an audience of 1,300 cheering admirers, Castro labeled the U.S. economic blockade of Cuba "a noiseless atom bomb that kills children."

Castro recalled his visit to Harlem during his first trip to the United Nations in 1960, when the United States was at the start of its civil rights revolution.

"Injustice was obvious, discrimination was obvious to me and as a revolutionary, I knew I would be welcome in this neighborhood," he said.

In at least one way, Castro's visit to Harlem on Sunday differed substantially from his 1960 trip.

On that occasion, Castro and his entourage of 50, almost all dressed in combat fatigues, stormed out of the Shelburne Hotel on Lexington Avenue, insisting that the hotel's demand for cash deposits was unacceptable. Tailed by the media, Castro led his entourage in a motorcade to Harlem, where they rented 40 rooms in the Theresa Hotel.

Soviet leader Nikita S. Khrushchev, sure that Castro had been thrown out by the mid-town hotel, later called on him in the Harlem hotel, meeting Castro for the first time.

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Castro's old sense of humor lightened the long television interview by CNN anchor Bernard Shaw.

Shaw asked Castro what he would do if he found himself in the same room with House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas and Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina, three Republicans who want to tighten the U.S. economic embargo on Cuba and who have berated the Clinton Administration for allowing the Communist leader into the country.

Castro smiled and replied: "I don't know whether they smoke cigars. I don't know whether they like rum. I don't know whether they are people who like to talk.

"But I would certainly start by inviting them to try a Cuban cigar and drink some Cuban rum. We could talk friendly, at least respectfully, and then we could discuss anything that they would like to deal with."

Castro, assuming a conciliatory pose throughout the interview, said he understands that it is too close to the next U.S. presidential election for him to expect an invitation for a meeting with Clinton. He professed not to be worried about congressional moves to tighten the embargo against Cuba.

But, global trends notwithstanding, he gave no indication that he intends to move Cuba from the Communist course that he set down for it.

At the United Nations, the Cuban leader evoked swells of applause from the assemblage of leaders, most from the Third World, with his portrait of 50 years of global failure by the world body.

Insisting that 20 million people die every year of hunger and curable diseases, the Cuban president demanded rhetorically: "How long shall we wait for this carnage to end?

"Will the next generations reach the promised land pledged half a century ago?" he asked.

"How many hundreds of millions have died without ever seeing it? How many have fallen victims of oppression, plundering, poverty, hunger and insalubrity? How many more will still die?"

Times staff writers John J. Goldman and Doyle McManus contributed to this report.

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