Fidel Castro once used Miami as haven, revolutionary springboard
CASTRO ONCE SEIZED UPON THE CITY AS A PLACE TO ROUSE SUPPORT FOR HIS
Posted on Fri, Jul. 25, 2008
By ALFONSO CHARDY AND LUISA YANEZ
Fidel Castro walking the streets of Miami.
It happened -- a long time ago.
The man who would become the ire of Cuban exiles and 10 U.S. presidents
visited three different times -- holding court at a well known coral
house in Little Havana, a Miami Beach hotel and a defunct Flagler Street
His first visit was in 1948, when he came for his honeymoon. The next
year, he came to hide.
And in 1955, he stumped through the area as a revolutionary and found
support among Miami exiles waiting out the ouster of Fulgencio Batista.
In retracing Castro's footsteps in 1940s and 1950s Miami, a portrait
emerges of a southern tourist town with a relatively small number of
Cubans who welcomed a man who would forever change the political
landscape of their island nation and much of South Florida.
At the former Flagler Theater, he collected hundreds of dollars and gave
a fiery speech he hoped would consolidate support for his yet-to-come
revolution, sparked by the famed attack on the Moncada barracks -- 55
years ago Saturday.
Luis Conte Agüero, then a well known politician and Castro ally, sat on
the dais at the rally on Nov. 20, 1955, along with a 29-year-old Castro
wearing not fatigues, but a dark suit.
''The thing I remember to this day is how in his speech he made a big
deal of pointing out that there were 26,000 Cubans at the time in exile.
And look what he ended up doing?'' said Conte Agüero, 84, who hosts a
cable television show on TeleMiami.
FIT FOR A HONEYMOON
Castro's first visit to the Miami area came in mid-October 1948, and was
typical for the times:
A newlywed, he came to honeymoon with his new bride, Mirta Díaz-Balart.
The couple stayed at a Miami Beach hotel -- perhaps the Saxony, the San
Souci or the Shelborne. ''Those were the hotels where well-healed,
upwardly mobile couples honeymooned in the late 1940s,'' said Miami
Beach historian Paul George.
Castro's bride was the sister of Castro's University of Havana law
school classmate and then-close friend, the late Rafael Díaz-Balart --
father of Cuban-American congressmen Lincoln and Mario Diaz-Balart.
In his memoir published in 2006, Rafael wrote that Castro and his sister
spent their honeymoon in ``one of the elegant hotels on Miami Beach.''
The Castros' wedding loot had been impressive -- more than $10,000.
At the oceanfront hotel, Cuban author Norberto Fuentes' massive
two-volume fiction-reality novel on Castro says the couple consummated
their marriage in their suite.
After the 10-day Miami Beach honeymoon, the Castros traveled to New
York. In Manhattan, they stayed with Díaz-Balart and his wife, Hilda, in
a tiny apartment on West 82nd Street.
Díaz-Balart wrote that the newlyweds decided to stay in New York and
briefly rented a room in the same building -- and Castro spent his time
teaching himself English and scouring bookstores.
He also bought a fancy car: a used 1947 Lincoln Continental with
electric windows, a luxury at the time. Conte Agüero said the car fit
``Fidel was very ostentatious; he took his wedding money to buy that car
-- and that was just like him.''
After several weeks in New York, the couples were evicted after Castro
decided he could no longer pay the rent, Fuentes writes in one of his books.
They headed back to Miami in the Lincoln, taking U.S. 1 all the way
south and breaking down several times. In Miami, Castro dropped off the
Díaz-Balarts at the airport, where they caught a plane back to Havana.
The couple continued south to Key West, where they boarded a water ferry
back to Havana -- along with their Lincoln, according to Fuentes' book.
A PLACE OF REFUGE
Castro's second trip was more cloak-and-dagger. On the run and fearing
for his life, Castro took refuge in Miami. In November 1949, Castro --
with a reputation as a political thug at the University of Havana --
feuded with his enemies. He denounced them publicly and then feared they
would retaliate and kill him.
Max Lesnik, a controversial radio commentator in Miami and fellow law
student, said he hid Castro at his Havana apartment, and that then
someone -- he doesn't recall who -- purchased Castro a plane ticket.
It's not known if Castro stayed in Miami for hours or days before moving
on to New York, waiting for tempers to cool.
The scare invigorated Castro. After returning to the island, he began to
plot one of his most strategic political moves. The Moncada attackers
were routed and Castro was captured. He stood trial and was convicted
and imprisoned -- but granted amnesty in a move that would seal Cuba's
Conte Agüero, a respected and popular politician in Cuba at the time who
now is a local television host, led the movement to spare Castro's life
-- and succeeded. ''I'm to blame for much, I know,'' he told The Miami
Castro became a cause célèbre. Within months, he headed to Miami looking
for money and support.
DRUMMING UP SUPPORT
Castro arrived in mid-November and gave an interview to The Miami Herald
to promote his rally on the 20th at the downtown theater, a spot just
west of Northwest Second Avenue, near where the Flagler Street bridge
''A young Cuban revolutionary is in Miami making plans to topple the
government of Fulgencio Batista,'' The Miami Herald wrote.
''We have an organized movement of 100,000 persons. If Batista continues
to remain in power by force, then there is no other way but to remove
him by force,'' Castro was quoted in detailing his desire.
Concerned that he wasn't a big enough draw, Castro convinced Conte
Agüero and another Cuban radio personality to fly to Miami from Havana
to join him at the theater rally.
Castro promised that more than 1,000 people were expected at the Sunday
morning event. ''The theater was full but not packed, '' Conte Agüero
The speakers sat at a long table on a stage in front of a portrait of
José Martí flanked by the U.S. and Cuban flags.
Diario Las Americas photographer Wilfredo Gort covered the event. He
took snapshots of an animated Castro and the cheering Cubans at the
theater. The photos are part of the collection at the Historical Museum
of Southern Florida.
After the rally, photos owned by the Rafael del Pino Siero family show a
joyful group of supporters surrounding Castro in the company of his
6-year-old son ``Fidelito.''
Conte Agüero doesn't recall where Castro stayed, but it wasn't at la
casa de piedra, or the rock house, still standing at the corner of
Northwest 22nd Avenue and Seventh Street. It's unclear who owned or
rented the house -- likely a Castro supporter. The two-story building
was a gathering spot during that visit, a place where Castro expounded
on his hopes for Cuba.
Today, long-time exiles still point to the coral house: ''Fidel Castro
stayed there,'' they say.
LEAVING CITY BEHIND
Conte Agüero said he knows Castro slept elsewhere in Miami during that
visit. ``He told me that, because of security concerns, he could not
stay there overnight.''
Castro may have even had a romantic tryst at the rock house. In 1997, a
woman told the Vista Semanal tabloid that she rented a room at the
house, where she and the young revolutionary made love.
True or false, the article is part of the Cuba Collection at the
University of Miami.
After Miami, Castro traveled to Tampa and finally Key West, where he
spent 10 days at a guest house.
He desperately wanted to speak at the historic San Carlos Institute on
Duval Street from the same balcony where Cuban patriot Martí had spoken
to Cuban cigar makers who worked there and who had fought for liberation
from Spain decades earlier.
Castro's request was shot down and he stormed off in a huff, vowing to
hold a rally denouncing the San Carlos decision at nearby Stock Island.
The demonstration fizzled, so he left for Mexico, never to return to Miami.