This morning, shortly after the news broke about Fidel Castro stepping down, I received an e-mail from lifelong friend Gene Konstant recalling that we seen Castro in Havana in September, 1959. It was about 8 months after Castro came to power and a little more than 3 months before President Eisenhower broke diplomatic relations with the island nation.
Conjuring some very old, and I hope not too dim, memories offers some perspective. Gene and I have been friends since grade school when we lived on the same block in Detroit. It was a natural friendship since our fathers had been friends for many years. Gene was a year ahead of me in school and, as it happened, we both graduated from Detroit Central High School and went on to earn our undergraduate degrees at Wayne State University. We were both involved in student politics at Wayne and became involved locally with the U.S. National Student Association (USNSA)chapter as well as its Michigan Region. We attended several USNSA national conventions and I spent some time on the National Executive Committee.
As I recall, the 1959 convention was held at the University of Illinois. A delegation of Cuban students attended and, before they headed back home, they invited a delegation of American students to visit them in Havana. A little over 200 students were selected for the journey. We were to appear at one of the New York airports (I can't remember which) at a stated date and time from where we would be flown to Havana and hosted by the Cuban student association. Gene and I were in that group.
I remember a number of things about the trip, which was taken up with tours of various sites in the Havana area, meetings with the host students and a number of social gatherings. I also remember a reception at the Havana Hilton hotel where a young Fidel Castro greeted and welcomed the American visitors. I believe he shook hands with as many of us as possible. That was 48 years ago last September. As Castro stepped down today, he had been in power for 49 years.
As I write about these memories from my college years, it occurs to me that not many of us have the opportunity to meet someone who has had the kind of impact on history that Castro has had. He has been one of the most polarizing figures in this hemisphere over the past half-century. Without being political, I can look back nearly 50 years and know that I had a rare opportunity and I still smile when I recall some of the places we visited in Havana and the wonderful welcome we received from the Cuban college students. I suspect Gene was smiling too when he sent me that e-mail this morning.