When Fidel Castro Charmed the United States
The world’s most notorious guerrilla leader was about to invade their living rooms, and Americans were thrilled. At 8:00 p.m. on Sunday, January 11, 1959, some 50 million viewers tuned their television sets to “The Ed Sullivan Show,” the trendsetting variety revue that had introduced them to Elvis Presley a few years earlier and would bring them the Beatles several years later. On this winter’s evening the avuncular Sullivan was hosting a Latin celebrity who had aroused intense curiosity across the United States: Fidel Castro, a charming 32-year-old lawyer-turned-revolutionary, known for his unkempt beard and khaki patrol cap, who had against all odds overthrown a bloodthirsty military regime in Cuba.
For America’s most beloved entertainment program, it was a rare excursion into politics. Earlier in the hour, Sullivan had presented a more typical array of artistic offerings for the staid Eisenhower era. Four acrobats leapt and gamboled around the stage (two of them wearing ape costumes). The Little Gaelic Singers crooned soothing Irish harmonies. A stand-up comic performed a cheesy routine about suburban house parties. Finally, Sullivan cut to the main attraction: his friendly interview with Fidel at the very cusp of the rebels’ victory.
The segment had been filmed at 2:00 a.m. on January 8 in the provincial outpost of Matanzas, 60 miles east of Havana, using the town hall as an improvised TV studio. Only a few hours after the interview, Fidel would make his triumphant entrance into the Cuban capital, his men riding on the backs of captured tanks in euphoric scenes that evoked the liberation of Paris. It was the electrifying climax of history’s most unlikely revolution: a scruffy handful of self-taught insurgents—many of them kids just out of college, literature majors, art students, and engineers, including a number of trailblazing women—had somehow defeated 40,000 professional soldiers and forced the sinister dictator, President Fulgencio Batista, to flee from the island like a thief in the night.
The surprising story of Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, and the scrappy band of rebel men and women who followed them.
Given the animosity that sprang up between the U.S. and Cuba soon after, the chummy atmosphere of the conversation today seems closer to “The Twilight Zone.” On-screen, Sullivan and his guest could hardly look more incongruous. Trying to look casual as he leans against a table, the thickset 57 -year-old yanqui impresario appears to have just walked out of a Brooks Brothers ad in his tailored suit and tie, his helmet of dyed hair neatly combed and brilliantined. (He was often parodied as a “well-dressed gorilla.”)
Fidel, by contrast, was already a fashion icon for rebellious American youth, his olive-drab uniform, martial kepi, and raffish facial hair instantly recognizable. Clustered around the pair are a dozen equally shaggy young rebels who were known in Cuba simply as los barbudos, “the bearded ones,” all cradling weapons—“a forest of tommy guns,” Sullivan later said. Fidel’s lover and confidante, Celia Sánchez, who often appeared by his side in press interviews, was this time standing off-camera, wearing specially tailored fatigues and balancing a cigarette in her finely manicured fingers. The most efficient organizer of the Rebel Army, she had brokered the media event and now dedicated herself to keeping the male guerrillas, who were as excitable as schoolboys, from wandering across the set or talking.
With his first breath, Sullivan assures CBS viewers that they are about to meet “a wonderful group of revolutionary youngsters,” as if they are the latest pop music sensation. Despite their unwashed appearance, Fidel’s followers are a far cry from the godless Communists depicted by the Cuban military’s propaganda machine, he adds; in fact, they are all wearing Catholic medals and some are even piously carrying copies of the Bible. But Sullivan is most interested in Fidel himself. The sheer improbability of his victory over the thuggish strongman Batista had bathed him in a romantic aura. U.S. magazines openly described Fidel as a new Robin Hood, with Celia as his Maid Marian, robbing from the rich to give to the poor.
Sullivan’s first questions are not the most hard-hitting: “Now, in school,” he chortles in his distinctively nasal voice, “I understand you were a very fine student and a very fine athlete. Were you a baseball pitcher?”
“Yes,” Fidel replies in the halting English learned at his Jesuit high school and several visits to New York City. “Baseball, basketball, softball. Every kind of sport.”
“Undoubtedly all of this exercise you did at school prepared you for this role?”
“Yes. I found myself in good condition to exist in the mountains . . .”
The hardened celebrity hound Sullivan is clearly starstruck by his guest, and his delivery is far more animated than his usual monotonous drone back in the New York studio. Comandante en Jefe Castro, meanwhile, comes across as earnest, sweet-natured, and eager to please, furrowing his brow with effort as he grasps for his English vocabulary. It’s hard not to feel for the rebel leader as he struggles gamely with the half-remembered tongue.
Some of the interview is haunting in retrospect. “I’d like to ask you a couple of questions, Fidel,” Sullivan says, serious for a moment. “In Latin American countries over and over again, dictators [have] stolen millions and millions of dollars, tortured and killed people. How do you propose to end that here in Cuba?”
Fidel laughs. “Very easy. By not permitting that any dictatorship come again to rule our country. You can be sure that Batista . . . will be the last dictator of Cuba.”
In 1959, Sullivan saw no reason to argue.
The lovefest now proceeds to its crescendo. “The people of the United States, they have great admiration for you and your men,” the host advises Fidel. “Because you are in the real American tradition—of a George Washington—of any band who started off with a small body [of men] and fought against a great nation and won.” Fidel takes the compliment in stride; after all, the U.S. press had been idolizing him for nearly two years as a citizen-soldier in the very spirit of 1776.
“What do you feel about the United States?” Sullivan asks.
“My feeling to the people of the United States is a feeling of sympathy,” Fidel says evenly, “because they are a very worker people . . ."
(“They work hard,” Ed interprets.)
“They have founded that big nation, working very much . . .”
(“That is right . . .” Ed nods.)
“United States is not one race [of] people, [they] came from every part in the world . . . at is why the United States belong[s] to the world, to those who were persecuted, to those who could not live in their own country . . .”
“We want you to like us.” Sullivan glows. “And we like you. You and Cuba!”
The show then cuts back to Sullivan in CBS’s Manhattan studio, where the arbiter of middle-class American taste lavishes Fidel with the same magnanimous praise he had heaped on Elvis.
“You know, this is a fine young man and a very smart young man,” he pronounces, squeezing his arms together in his famous hunched stance. “And with the help of God and our prayers, and with the help of the American government, he will come up with the sort of democracy down there that America should have.”
And then the show rolled on to its next variety segment: a fashion show for poodles.
Today, it is all but impossible to imagine that moment in 1959 when the Cuban Revolution was fresh, Fidel and Che were young and handsome, and Americans could view the uprising as an embodiment of their own finest ideals. As Sullivan observed, here was a people fighting for freedom against injustice and tyranny, a modern echo of the War of Independence, with Fidel as a sexier version of a Founding Father and his guerrillas the reincarnation of Ethan Allen’s Green Mountain Boys, the irregular sharpshooters who helped defeat the redcoats.
A string of other gushing interviews would quickly follow Sullivan’s, conducted by everyone from the revered CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow to the Hollywood actor Errol Flynn. A few months later, in April 1959, Fidel even traveled on a victory lap of the northeastern United States: he was mobbed by admirers as he ate hot dogs in New York City, spoke at Princeton, and made dutiful visits to hallowed shrines of democracy such as Mount Vernon and the Lincoln Memorial.
Meanwhile, American Cubaphiles flocked to Havana to see the revolution firsthand and were warmly welcomed. They immersed themselves in the Mardi Gras atmosphere, attending mass rallies and wacky, radical street celebrations such as a mock funeral parade for a nationalized telephone company, complete with musicians dressed as mourners and fake coffins. Havana was a round-the-clock fiesta, with buskers on every corner singing patriotic songs to raise money for the new Cuban state in a delirious wave of optimism.
Beat poets wrote odes to Fidel. African-Americans were exhilarated by Cuba’s overnight abolition of all segregation laws, just as the Civil Rights Movement was gaining pace in the U.S., and joined special group tours for black writers and artists. A Creek chief traveled to meet Fidel wearing a full-feathered war bonnet. Feminists rejoiced in Cuba’s promise that women’s liberation would be “a revolution within the revolution.”
The entire world was fascinated by the apparent explosion of idealism: Fidel, Che and Celia basked in goodwill, entertaining intellectuals like Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. There was a chance, many felt, that Cuba would become a paradise of political, racial, and gender equality.
The reason for our amnesia about how the revolution was received is, of course, political: the popular memory of the guerrilla campaign was an early casualty of the Cold War. When los barbudos first rolled into Havana in January 1959, they were showered with admiration for what seemed a black-and-white struggle for liberty. But Atomic Age milestones such as the CIA-backed Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961 and the near-Armageddon of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, which pushed the human race the closest it has ever come to extinction in nuclear war, quickly overshadowed any romance for most in the Western world. It became widely accepted in the U.S. that Fidel and his supporters had been covering up Communist sympathies that had lurked in their hearts from the start.
And yet, the story of how a few amateur subversives defeated one of Latin America’s most loathsome regimes remains a defining saga of the 20th century. In the words of historian Nancy Stout, Cuba’s was “the perfect revolution” for the visual media age that kicked off in the 1950s: it was short; it was successful; it unfolded in neat stages—“like an operetta”—and yet with the narrative arc of a paperback thriller. It was also full of larger-than-life characters. Coinciding with the birth of network television and the golden age of magazines, it became history’s most photogenic revolt. Images of the dashing guerrillas and attractive guerrilla women—almost all in their 20s or early 30s, some of them fresh-faced teenagers—jolted the world towards the 1960s.
Thanks to the veil of suspicion and ideology hanging over Cuba today, few are aware of just how improvised the revolution was; its leaders were largely forced to make up their own brand of jungle combat and urban resistance as they went along. Even fewer recall the genuine bravery and self-sacrifice of those years, when ordinary Cubans risked torture and death every day at the hands of Batista’s henchmen, who were as sadistic as Gestapo agents. Under Batista, thousands of young rebel sympathizers disappeared into police torture chambers, their mutilated bodies strung up in parks or dumped in gutters the next morning. Today, long decades after el triunfo, “the triumph,” a few famous images of the main characters—Fidel with his Old Testament beard, Che in his beret gazing mystically ahead—have become frozen as Soviet-era clichés.
But by going back to original letters, diaries, TV and newspaper accounts, it's possible to turn back the clock to recapture the atmosphere of Cuba in the 1950s, when the actors were unknowns, history was unformed, and the fate of the revolution hung in the balance. Imagining history as it was lived helps to explain how the optimism of the uprising went so badly awry. Were Americans—and the many moderate Cubans who supported the revolution—duped by Fidel, as hardliners would later allege, tricked by a Machiavellian figure who had a secret agenda from the start? Or could the story of modern Cuba, which reshaped international politics so radically, have gone another way?
Tony Perrottet is a contributing writer for Smithsonian magazine, a regular contributor to the New York Times and WSJ Magazine, and the author of six books including The Naked Olympics: The True Story of the Ancient Games, Napoleon's Privates: 2500 Years of History Unzipped and The Sinner's Grand Tour: A Journey Through the Historical Underbelly of Europe.
From ¡Cuba Libre!: Che, Fidel and the Improbable Revolution That Changed World History by Tony Perrottet, published by Blue Rider Press, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright (c) 2019 by Tony Perrottet.