A Champion of Cuban Art Remembers Fidel And a Violent Anti-Castro Cuban In New York
Sandra Levinson Photo by Mary Reinholz
BY MARY REINHOLZ
Sandra Levinson was working late that March night when the bomb went off. It exploded in the inside hall of the Center for Cuban Studies, a leftist non-profit she had co-founded eight months earlier in New York with documentary filmmaker Saul Landau and photojournalist Lee Lockwood.
Shards of glass showered Levinson’s third-floor office in a Greenwich Village building near Barrow Street. Her glasses were broken when a window fell on them. But Levinson, a former reporter for the now defunct Ramparts magazine and a one-time political science instructor at City College of New York, was wearing a heavy poncho and escaped what could have been fatal injuries.
The Iowa native believes that the perp was a Cuban exile opposed to the late revolutionary leader Fidel Castro, possibly part of a group of violent extremists who regarded her as a hated Castro loyalist.
“He was a guy who came around and cased the joint around the same time the night before and he wanted to know if other people were working on the floor,” Levinson said of the suspect in a recent phone conversation. “He was never prosecuted.” A group calling itself Secret Cuban Government later claimed responsibility for the bombing.
The bomb blast that nearly killed her happened way back in 1973. These days, Levinson is considered a pioneer in bringing original Cuban art to the United States. She has been to Communist Cuba at least 300 times and knew Fidel Castro personally, introducing him to famous people like Norman Mailer, Harry Belafonte and Jack Nicholson.
She remains the executive director of CCS, now on the fourth floor of a building in downtown New York’s Chelsea district. It boasts a tour agency, a collection of 10,000 Cuban artworks, and a gift shop selling items like Cuban posters, flags, books, jewelry and clothing. Levinson successfully sued the U.S. Treasury Department for the right to import Cuban art in 1991 and says she “couldn’t afford” to open the center’s Cuban Art Space until 1999. It holds regularly scheduled exhibitions.
Some of the original Cuban paintings, sculpture and collages still on display from a recent exhibition,
“Many Faces of Fidel.”
They show sharply different images of the bearded commandant whose band of rebel fighters took power on the tiny island nation in 1959, toppling U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista. Fidel Castro ruled Cuba for more than 50 years, ceding power to his younger brother Raul in 2008 when he fell ill. He died Nov. 25 at age 90, after what Cuban officials say were hundreds of assassination attempts, mostly by alleged CIA operatives.
Cuba, long forbidden tourist turf for Americans, came under a U.S. trade embargo first in 1958 and again in 1960 after Castro’s government confiscated private property and nationalized U.S. companies.
Castro probably wouldn’t have liked the “Many Faces” exhibit, which includes artwork produced after December 2014, when president Barack Obama announced that he and Raul Castro had agreed to restore diplomatic relations after decades of a Cold War deep freeze.
Levinson noted that Fidel was “totally opposed to the cult of personality” during an interview in her art-filled office last week. “He absolutely demanded that there be no streets named after him, no buildings named after him, no statues named after him. After the revolution, he was furious when he found out that [stores] were selling things like that,” she said, waving to a bust of Castro atop a filing cabinet. “They were all removed from the stores. I got mine from a flea market. He didn’t want any iconography when he was living or when he was dead.”
She observed: “All it says on his tombstone is ‘Fidel.’ That’s all it has to say.”
Levinson was apparently inspired by Castro after she became one of a group of journalists invited to be with him in July of 1969 when he announced the beginning of a 10-million-ton sugar harvest. She takes exception to the tabloid press calling him a dictator and bloody tyrant who jailed political opponents and brought the Western Hemisphere to the brink of nuclear holocaust during the Cuban missile crisis.
“I would characterize him as one of the great revolutionary leaders of the 20th century,” she said. “He converted what was once a U.S. client state into an independent strong nation. As [Uruguayan writer] Eduardo Galeano said [of Cuba], ‘It’s the least unjust society in Latin America.’” She acknowledges there was a “repressive period, no question about it” against gays and Cubans who criticized Castro’s regime, but claims “everything changed once the Ministry of Culture was organized in 1975. Nobody [in the U.S. press] took the time to find out.”
As for the Cuban exiles and their families who joyously celebrated Fidel’s demise in the streets of Miami, Levinson said she believes many are the “wealthy people” who left Cuba at the beginning of the revolution. “Their standing in the community depended on how anti-Castro they were. But as the generations got younger and younger, you got less of that. There’s a different attitude. They have gone to Cuba and have decided for themselves. And some have come to the conclusion that hey, Cuba is no better or worse than any other country.”
CCS staffer Juan Carlos Tarmargo, who grew up in Miami, a son of wealthy anti-Castro Cubans, curated the “Many Faces of Fidel” exhibit and was decked out in black when this reporter spoke to him. He said he was “in mourning,” but not for Fidel–rather, because of the “nightmare election” of Donald Trump. Like Levinson, his boss, Tamargo worries that Trump, after his inauguration on Jan. 20, will reverse “all the progress” made by Obama in loosening travel restrictions to Cuba and trying to lift the embargo.
Juan Carlos Tarmargo
“I don’t know what [Trump] is going to do, but I suspect he’s going to close the door,” he said. “A lot of Cubans, particularly in Florida, oppose lifting the embargo. [Senator] Rubio is a big opponent. He would like to keep things the way the way they were. Things could go back to the way they were before Obama,” when U.S. travelers to Cuba had to “get special permission” from a wing of the U.S. Department of the Treasury. “There could be more paperwork. Checks from the CIA.”
For his part, Trump recently tweeted a threat to undo Obama’s policies of detente with the island unless Cuba provides a “better deal” for Cubans and Americans.
In the meantime, there’s been a much reported surge in U.S. travel to Cuba, with passengers flying aboard commercial carriers beginning with JetBlue in New York. On Nov. 28, three days after Fidel Castro died, ushering in a 9-day period of mourning in Cuba, JetBlue announced its first commercial trip from JFK to Havana’s Jose Marti International airport. It cost a mere $99 for a one-way ticket.
“Prior to the launch of these commercial flights, JetBlue had been flying to Cuba for charter companies since 2011,” a JetBlue spokesperson wrote in an e-mail. “As a leading airline in the Caribbean, we look forward to continuing to provide low-fare service between the United States and Cuba within the restrictions imposed by U.S. federal law and regulations.”
In the wake of Obama’s overtures to Cuba, American travelers to the island no longer have to apply for a special license from the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), a unit that enforces economic and trade sanctions based on U.S. foreign policy and national security goals. But they do have to fill out a form from OFAC showing they fit into 12 categories that the U.S. allows for travel to Cuba. These include family visits, “people to people” educational activities, humanitarian projects and journalism.
Tarmago said the CCS tours make all the arrangements and deliver a “package” to applicants when they’re ready to go on one of their guided trips to Cuba. They’re pricy. The least expensive is a tour called Cuba Now, which costs $4,300 for an eight-day, seven-night stay in a double occupancy hotel room. That doesn’t cover the cost of air fare, travel insurance and other expenses. Travelers must pay a $500 deposit and book about two months in advance. Tarmago recommends bringing along a “bundle of cash” to cover day-to-day costs on the island since use of credit cards remain problematic.
It’s far less expensive to travel solo–especially if travelers know people in Cuba who can put them up or connect with locals who provide home stays. They’re called casa particulars. Airbnb is also now operating in Cuba. A private room in a colonial mansion in Havana is going for $45.
Ann Farmer, a freelance journalist who lives in Red Hook, traveled to Cuba in 2004 via the Bahamas (there were no direct flights to Cuba back then, she said). Farmer, who had an assignment from Dance magazine to interview Alicia Alonso, the iconic former New York City ballerina who heads Cuba’s famed National Ballet, stayed at a bed and breakfast and recalls paying about $30 a night, plus about $30 a day for food.
Farmer noted she was in Cuba at a time when president George W. Bush had imposed tough sanctions on travel to the island. “The problem was getting a visa,” she said. “As I recall, the U.S. government gave me the okay first. But I seemed to be going in circles with the Cuban officials. Once I was able to get in touch with Alicia Alonso’s PR people, bingo, my visa got approved. I can’t be absolutely certain that they made it happen. But I know that she was always favored by Fidel because of her allegiance to him and his revolution.”
During her stay in Cuba, Farmer said she sensed a feeling of repression among the Cuban people she spoke to. “I quickly picked up that people couldn’t or wouldn’t speak openly about the government. And there was deprivation–people living on very minimal basics–although I didn’t notice any of the extreme deprivation you see here in the States among the homeless.”
What will happen to Cuba without Fidel, who brought free education and universal health care to his people? “We don’t know!” said Sandra Levinson, who flew to Cuba before Christmas. “I have a lot of faith in the Cuban people. They’re very smart. They’re very resilient. They have a great sense of humor. And I think they can get through anything.”
A VERSION OF THIS ARTICLE WAS FIRST PRINTED IN A NEW YORK MAGAZINE WEBSITE, BEDFORD + BOWERY.