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Castro Gets a Warm Welcome in Harlem

October 23, 1995 GMT

NEW YORK (AP) _ Trading his business suit for fatigues, a defiant Fidel Castro traveled to Harlem on Sunday and received thunderous applause as he called for an end to the United States’ embargo against his nation.

``We will never change, because we were right,″ the Cuban president told a wildly cheering audience of 1,200 inside the Abyssinian Baptist Church. The throng excitedly chanted ``Fidel, si,″ and ``We Want Cuba!″

Castro drew a standing ovation when he offered to send Cuban volunteers to help impoverished Americans.

``If one day the Americans were to need doctors, I can tell you that we have many good doctors,″ he said. ``If in any neighborhood you don’t have a doctor, our doctors will come to work here.″

The visit was reminiscent of his last trip to the mostly black and Hispanic neighborhood, in 1960, when he met Soviet Premier Nikita Khruschev at the Hotel Theresa.

As the leader of the only Communist country in the western hemisphere, Castro was not invited to President Clinton’s gala dinner Monday at the New York Public Library and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s parties for diplomats attending the United Nations 50th anniversary celebration.

``It is really incredible that history is repeating itself in this way,″ Castro said. ``It’s as if we were in the days of the Cold War. It may be cold out, but there’s no longer a Cold War.″

He called the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba unfair and illogical ``because those are weapons against ordinary people.″

In his speech earlier Sunday at the United Nations, Castro said: ``We lay claim to a world without ruthless blockades that cause the death of men, women and children, youths and elders, like noiseless atom bombs.″

By the time he arrived at the church, he had changed out of his suit and into his comfortable soldier’s uniform.

``I said to myself, the last time I went to Harlem I was wearing my fatigues,″ Castro said to rousing cheers. ``How can I go to Harlem dressed in a business suit?″

His speech was organized by the Interreligious Foundation for Community Organizing, which has long advocated lifting the embargo.

He got a standing ovation when he talked about how his country supported black South Africans under apartheid.

``For 15 years we were there ... fighting racism till the very end,″ Castro said. ``Whenever there has been a tragedy ... our people have made their contribution to help ... regardless of whether those countries had diplomatic relations with us or not.″

Hundreds of well-wishers greeted Castro’s limousine outside the church, including Nhlanhla Hlongwane, who said he had ``deep respect and admiration for Fidel and his people. I’m glad he’s able to stick to his guns. He’s a big man in the world.″

Only a few were critical of the poverty and allegations of human rights abuses in Cuba. ``When I left, it was better there than it is today,″ immigrant Louis Walker said.

When he visited in 1960, Castro, then 35, had been in power for just a year. He left the Shelburne Hotel in midtown Manhattan after the proprietors complained that he and his aides had run up $10,000 in damage _ cigar burns in the rugs, empty rum bottles in the halls and live chickens brought in to be cooked on hotplates.

Castro moved to the Theresa. While throngs waited outside for a glimpse, Khruschev dropped by to introduce himself.

This time, Castro is staying at the Cuban Mission to the United Nations, but he stopped at the hotel, now an office building, and got out of his limousine for a quick look around on the way to the church.

The symbolism of his return to Harlem was lost on no one.

``He was rejected, and as people of African descent, we understand that kind of ill treatment,″ said Abyssinian’s pastor, the Rev. Calvin Butts. ``His choice was to come to Harlem.″

The church, which has welcomed world leaders ranging from Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie to Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert, takes no official position on Castro’s politics and the trade embargo.