The Day In 1959 When Castro Took Questions From Harvard Law Students

Nov 28, 2016
Originally published on November 28, 2016 12:13 pm
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now, let's recall a moment when Fidel Castro had a look at the American political system. In April of 1959, which was just after he took over Cuba but before he said he was communist, Castro visited the United States. He met with then-Vice President Richard Nixon and went to Harvard University. It's a moment to recall as we mark Castro's death over the weekend. NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro reports on a moment when the Cuban leader said the two countries needed to be better acquainted.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FIDEL CASTRO: I think we didn't know you, and we really don't know you well, and you don't know us well. And it is necessary that you and us know better.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: Castro was asked about the imprisonment and execution of political opponents in the weeks just after he seized power. He answered by denouncing the deposed dictator Fulgencio Batista. He claimed that the tough measures of his early days in power were known only because his revolution had brought a new openness to the government in Havana. The 32-year-old Castro tried to draw on the sympathies of his student audience. He said that U.S. citizens were fortunate to be born into a democracy with freedom of speech and no fear of military oppression, like what Cuba had experienced under Batista.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CASTRO: You don't know what is tyranny. You had the good luck of living here in a normal country in which since you were born you only see the fulfilling of the law. You are sure at all of your freedom, of your Constitution. You are not worried of general to take power by force. You are not worried by the Army to take power by force. And you have no idea what is that, what is to live without freedoms under the fear, under the terror without the right of election, of right of speaking.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: A bit later, one of the Harvard law students ask Castro, himself a doctor of law, when democracy would come to Cuba.

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ROY SCHOTTLAND: Dr. Castro, Roy Schottland (ph). The postponing of elections in Cuba has been explained by the need for special powers to fulfill your revolutionary reforms. Don't you feel you would have even greater powers if the people were allowed to speak through the polls?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Castro responded that the political climate needed for free and open elections did not yet exist. Castro went on to say that it would take time for political parties to develop and that he would wait a few years to hold elections. Castro claimed that he took no pleasure in holding power. He said leading Cuba was a duty, that it was work and that he did it out of love of country, not lust for power.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CASTRO: Power for us is a sacrifice, not to pleasure. It is to - a sacrifice...

(APPLAUSE)

CASTRO: ...Not a business. Here - what they do now here to the face of revolution, to the face our government, not business. If I don't sleep, if I work - I have a lot of work - it is because I love my country. I love the revolution, and I make all sacrifice possible.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Fidel Castro in 1959.

INSKEEP: And that was NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro. She's in Havana as part of our coverage of the death of Fidel Castro. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.