WASHINGTON – Fidel Castro’s legendary longevity was such that it is almost impossible to find eyewitnesses to that week in the spring of 1959 when the new Cuban leader set foot in Washington for the first time to win the heart of the “empire.”
“There’s no one among our experts who can go back that far,” said the press office of the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), whose co-founder, Christian Herter, then secretary of state, was the first U.S. official to meet in the nation’s capital with the 32-year-old bearded revolutionary.
Castro, who made the visit seeking legitimacy for his recently triumphant revolution, seemed to Herter to be almost child-like, a person green not only in terms of his military garb but also in matters of government, according to State Department cables.
Castro established a good rapport with members of President Dwight Eisenhower’s administration – though there were concerns about his potential nationalization plans, particularly in the sugar industry –, the press portrayed him as a hero and Washingtonians followed him wherever he went.
It was on 16th Street NW – near Cuba’s old, and recently reopened, diplomatic headquarters – that Sherry Hayes Santana, then a 16-month-old toddler, came into contact with Castro and ended up in a photo that captured the short-lived bond between the Cuban revolutionary idealist and the American people.
Hayes told EFE that a UPI photographer picked her up and placed her in Castro’s arms, adding that her parents found her playing with the Cuban leader and surrounded by journalists.
The woman, who says she was pleased when President Obama normalized ties with Cuba and wishes she could have visited the Communist-ruled island while Castro – who died on Nov. 25 – was alive, said that she later received a signed letter from the revolutionary leader.
Castro’s agenda during that April 15-26 visit was similar to that of today’s recently inaugurated leaders: he spoke at the National Press Club, had lunch with U.S. officials, appeared on the Sunday television news program Meet the Press and visited the Capitol, where he met with then-Vice President Richard Nixon.
But politics soon got in the way of any good intentions: Castro began expropriating large landholdings and moved closer to the Soviet Union, while the United States slashed imports of Cuban sugar and backed a failed invasion at the Bay of Pigs.
More than 57 years after that visit, Cuba is on the defensive, according to Riordan Roett, director of the Latin American Studies Program at Johns Hopkins SAIS, who says the island is suffering from an anemic economy and facing an incoming Trump administration that does not know if it will opt for ideology or pragmatism.