If the photo didn’t exist, you wouldn’t believe it: Abraham Lincoln and Fidel Castro

This popped in over the Twitter transom yesterday:

I don’t recall having seen the shot before. But Alex Selwyn-Holmes at Iconic Photographs posted a very complete story about the picture in 2009.

Fidel Castro at the Lincoln Memorial, 1959. Photo by Alfredo Korda. Korda titled the photo "David and Goliath."

Fidel Castro at the Lincoln Memorial, 1959. Photo by Alfredo Korda. Korda titled the photo “David and Goliath.”

Between April 15 and April 26 1959–a few months after he took power in Cuba–Fidel Castro went to the United States, invited by the American Society of Newspaper Editors. In one of those forgotten episodes of the Cold War, Castro went to the US for loans. Castro hired one of the best public relations firms to present his new government. Castro answered impertinent questions jokingly and ate hot dogs and hamburgers. His rumpled fatigues and scruffy beard cut a popular figure easily promoted as an authentic hero.

Read the whole story at Iconic Photographs.

In 1959, Castro’s forces had recently ousted Cuban president (and dictator) Gen. Fulgencio Batista.  Under Batista Cuba was very much a playground for America’s rich, and a steady supply of cheap sugar and good cigars.  In the musical play and movie, “Guys and Dolls,” the character Sky Masterson gets a date with a Salvation Army-style preacher woman, to win a bet.  When she finally consents (after he offers to fill her mission hall with reprobates in need of salvation), she asks what time she should be ready for dinner.  “Noon,” Masterson replies.  They are to fly from New York to Cuba for dinner, and return by the next morning.  Cuba’s reputation as hangout for American mobsters came honestly.  (“Guys and Dolls” opened on Broadway in 1950, and the movie hit theaters in 1955. That was the heyday of the Douglas DC-6, which is what a gambler probably would have flown from New York to Havana at that time, flying in to what is now Jose Marti International Airport.)

In contrast to the playboy mobsters, Cuban people tended to lead very bleak lives.  Sugar and tobacco farming did not make Cubans rich; processing of sugar was done by large international corporations.  Cuban cigars, recognized for quality, tended to be cheap, and tobacco farmers and cigar makers employed thousands of underpaid Cubans.  Cuba’s Havana nightlife seemed reserved for the wealthy, which usually meant foreign tourists, and not Cubans.

Castro’s revolution succeeded partly because of that rift, and Castro promised to turn things around for the masses of Cuban people (promises yet unkept).

For 11 days in 1959, Fidel Castro fascinated the U.S.  He spoke to the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, and to the American Society of Newspaper Editors. (His UN speech and famous hotel stay, in which he plucked and cooked chickens in his New York Hotel room, came the next year).  Castro ate hot dogs, and laid a wreath in the tomb of George Washington. At one point Castro was introduced in the audience of the “Ed Sullivan Show” as “the George Washington of Cuba” (this trip?)  But in Washington, Castro ran into Richard Nixon’s anti-Communist paranoia when seeking aid from the Eisenhower administration.  Without help from the U.S., Castro took offers of assistance from the Soviet Union who were anxious to have a friend and ally in the Americas, close to United States territorial waters.

Would Castro have cozied to the U.S. instead of the U.S.S.R., had the U.S. offered aid.  Most  historians think Castro’s communist path was already set when he visited the U.S.

This photo makes one wonder.  Certainly it was good public relations, for Castro to be seen paying homage to Abraham Lincoln.  Was it more than just a propaganda photo?

It’s a fascinating photo.

What do you think?


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