Since overthrowing the brutal and corrupt dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista in 1959 with his ragtag band of guerrilla warriors from Cuba’s Sierra Maestra, Fidel Castro has been a thorn in the side of U.S. Presidents and an inspiration to others throughout Latin America. Despite giving up power in 2006 due to failing health, Castro’s impact on the world is unquestionable and long-lasting, but whether he should be celebrated or despised will always be debated and determined by whoever it is that you might ask. For half a century, however, he has stood up against the superpower 90 miles from the shores of his little island and survived the Administrations of Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and, so far, Barack Obama. Most of those Presidents have sought to end Castro’s Revolution; all of them have sanctioned his country; some of them actively sought to kill him.
But Fidel Castro’s first interaction with an American President (albeit one-sided) was much different than his later experiences — it was innocent and childlike. Perhaps that was due to the fact that it took place when he was 14 years old.
Thanks to the work of our National Archives and the Franklin D. Roosevelt President Library in preserving the papers of our Presidents, we have a remarkable letter. On November 6, 1940, the 14-year-old (claiming to be only 12) who would lead the Cuban Revolution less than 20 years later sat in his room at the Colegio De Dolores, a prep school run by the Jesuits in Santiago, Cuba, and penned a letter (in broken English, but fine handwriting) to President Roosevelt, who had won re-election to an unprecedented third term just a day earlier.
This is what Fidel Castro wrote to Franklin D. Roosevelt. (Spelling mistakes are Fidel’s.)
Santiago de Cuba.
Nov 6 1940.
Mr. Franklin Roosvelt,
President of the United States.
My good Roosvelt
I don’t know very English, but I know as much as write to you.
I like to hear the radio, and I am very happy, because I heard in it, that you will be President a new (periodo)
I am twelve years old.
I am a boy but I think very much, but I do not think that I am writting to the President of the United States.
If you like, give me a ten dollars bill green american, in the letter, because never, I have not seen a ten dollars bill green american and I would like to have one of them.
My address is:
Sr. Fidel Castro
Colegio de Dolores
Santiago de Cuba
I don’t know very English but I know very much Spanish and I suppose you don’t know very Spanish but you know very English because you are American but I am not American.
(Thank you very much)
Good by. Your friend,
If you want iron to make your
sheapsships I will show to you the bigest (minar) of iron of the land. They are in Mayarí. Oriente Cuba.
Fidel didn’t get his “ten dollars bill green american”. Perhaps that’s why he nationalized so many American-owned industries in Cuba in August 1960. FDR likely never saw the letter (a time stamp notes that it was received by the State Department on November 27, 1940), and Roosevelt died long before Castro became somebody that an American President would know anything about. The same could not be said for Roosevelt’s successors in the White House.
I have long been drawn to Cuba, as I believe I have shared before. I don’t quite understand why. I’m not Cuban. The part of me that is Hispanic is Mexican — old, indigenous Mexican rather than Spanish — so there is no ethnic or familial connection to Cuba. Yet, I’ve always been drawn to that little island that is about the same distance from Florida as Sacramento is from San Francisco. There’s just a mystique to it — not only because of Fidel and Ché and Camilo Cienfuegos and Celia Sánchez — but dating back to the words of José Martí. There is something resilient about the Cuban people that fascinates me.
Last year, I shared the story of my friend Sarah, who I met during the first Obama campaign and who has been studying medicine for the past few years in Havana courtesy of the Cuban government. I wanted to experience Cuba even before I met Sarah and I’m working hard to try to visit Havana sometime this year. What I really want to experience is Cuba while Fidel Castro is still alive. While Fidel is no longer in power, I just feel like being on the island while he is still living will be a completely different experience than when he is gone, even if his brother Raul remains in power and the country continues to be Communist. If I went to Cuba today, I think I’d still feel like I was in Fidel Castro’s Cuba and that’s the unique experience I want to have, even for just a week.
I’m beginning to think my odds of making it there before Fidel dies aren’t so great, however. Argentina’s President Cristina Fernández visited Havana last week and paid a courtesy call on the former Cuban leader, who will turn 87 in August, and it certainly looks like I need to step up my efforts to visit Sarah in Cuba if I want to experience Cuba while Fidel Castro is still alive:
So, Comandante, for purely selfish reasons, can you just hold on for a little while longer while I try to get everything in order for my visit? I’m really trying to do it this year — maybe even late Spring. Cool? Comandante? Fidel? No, I’m over here where your brother and Cristina are looking. I’ll bring you some of that adidas gear you seem to dig so much.
•This is an Historically Accurate Transcription starring Vice President Richard Nixon and Cuban Leader Fidel Castro at the U.S. Capitol•
NIXON: Well, this is awkward.
FIDEL: Indeed it is.
NIXON: So, I’m Richard Nixon, Vice President of the United States.
FIDEL: Pleased to meet you, Mr. Vice President. I’m Fidel Castro, half-Revolutionary, half-statesman, and 100% absofuckinglutely awesome. Want a cigar?
NIXON: No thank you, nothing against your fine people and their tobacco products, but it’s probably laced with AIDS and poverty.
NIXON: You know, personally, I LOVE the idea of Communism. I just want to throw that out there. It’s Eisenhower who is making a big to-do about you and your kick-ass Revolution.
FIDEL: Ah, this must be why they call you “Tricky Dick”! You tell me what I want to hear and I’m supposed to be charmed, right? I’m told that you’re the biggest opponent of Communism in the United States.
NIXON: That’s what my enemies want you to think. It’s the damn Kennedy family! They are always trying to bring Dick Nixon down.
FIDEL: Wouldn’t fighting Communism make you look good to Americans, Dick? I can call you “Dick”, right?
NIXON: Yes, you may. Can I call you “Fred”?
FIDEL: Of cour…wait, no…why would you call me “Fred”?
NIXON: No reason. Anyway, it would seem that fighting Communism would make me look good, but those damn Kennedys are up to something. You know, I’ll probably be running for President against Jack Kennedy next year.
FIDEL: Yes. It should be interesting.
NIXON: No, it should be my turn to be President! That is what it should be, Fred. But the damn Kennedys are conspiring against me. They are going to buy that election, just watch. Also, the Jews.
FIDEL: What about the Jews?
NIXON: You know…money…Jews…dishonesty…corruption.
FIDEL: You’re just saying random words and hoping that I’ll fall into your stereotyping.
NIXON: See, they’ve gotten to you, too. Those goddamn Kennedy Jews.
FIDEL: It’s been nice talking to you, Mr. Vice President, I really must be going…
NIXON: Listen, Fred, they are going to invade Cuba.
FIDEL: Wait…what? Who is?
NIXON: The Kennedys — all of the brothers and sisters and nieces and nephews — the whole fucking clan. There are like 6000 of those sumbitches. They are going to use their big-ass Kennedy teeth for weapons and land a yacht on the Cuban coast to try to bring you down.
FIDEL: So, you are telling me that the Kennedy family is personally going to try to invade Cuba. Sounds unlikely.
NIXON: That’s what I hear. I’m just trying to help you, Fred.
FIDEL: It’s “Fidel”…my name is “Fidel”.
NIXON: Yes, but in English that is translated to “Fred”.
FIDEL: No, it totally isn’t translated to “Fred” in English. Back to this “invasion”. Where do you get this information?
NIXON: The Jews. Also, they are going to try to assassinate you. With poison ink pens and exploding cigars. They have some Bugs Bunny-type shit that they’re going to use.
FIDEL: Alright, again, nice meeting you, Mr. Vice President.
NIXON: Three words - “Bay of Pigs”. BAHIA DE COCHINOS, FRED!
FIDEL: (Walking away) Goodbye and good luck in 1960, sir.
NIXON: (Turning away) Buy a Gillette, you fucking Commie.