Fidel Castro

What happened when Fidel Castro visited Miami

Fidel Castro, right, speaks at the Flagler Theater in Miami on Nov. 20, 1955, before a crowd of supporters who then contributed money to help finance his revolution that succeeded in toppling dictator Fulgencio Batista. (Photo from the Rafael del Pino Siero family collection)
Fidel Castro, right, speaks at the Flagler Theater in Miami on Nov. 20, 1955, before a crowd of supporters who then contributed money to help finance his revolution that succeeded in toppling dictator Fulgencio Batista. (Photo from the Rafael del Pino Siero family collection) Rafael del Pino Siero family collection

Fidel Castro’s death was announced early Saturday. This article was first published in 2008.

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 theater.

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 Castro's personality.

"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 future.

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 Herald.

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 now stands.

"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 remembers.

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.

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