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  1. Florida Politics

That time Fidel Castro gave a speech in Ybor City - 61 years ago

Fidel Castro, with an unidentified onlooker, addresses a group in Ybor City during a visit to Tampa in November 1955 to solicit support and cash for his planned overthrow of the Cuban government. Memories of that visit, long before Castro embraced communism, linger in Tampa as U.S.-Cuban relations thaw.
Fidel Castro, with an unidentified onlooker, addresses a group in Ybor City during a visit to Tampa in November 1955 to solicit support and cash for his planned overthrow of the Cuban government. Memories of that visit, long before Castro embraced communism, linger in Tampa as U.S.-Cuban relations thaw.
Published Nov. 27, 2016

TAMPA — When Patrick Manteiga traveled to Cuba in 2002, it was to be a part of history as a member of the delegation led by then-Tampa Mayor Dick Greco, the city's first elected official to meet with Fidel Castro.

But Manteiga also sought to remind Cuba of its established history with Tampa.

Manteiga, the third-generation owner of the La Gaceta newspaper, brought with him a photo of his grandfather and publication founder Victoriano Manteiga sitting with Castro at a Tampa union hall in November 1955 for a fundraiser for the future Cuban president's revolution.

Despite not seeing the late Victoriano Manteiga for over five decades, Castro recognized him in the photo. Castro then signed the photo in Spanish, "For Patrick Manteiga with infinite gratitude for this unforgettable memory."

"I wasn't shocked he remembered," Manteiga said. "Castro only came to Tampa that once, but it was important for him at the time."

The Tampa trip was one that raised money for Castro's revolution and established a Tampa branch of his army — the 26th of July Movement — charged with supporting the war by continuing to collect supplies for the troops in Cuba.

The culmination of that visit to Tampa was Castro's speech in Ybor City on Nov. 27, 1955 — 61 years ago today.

While Castro is hardly the type of person who inspires celebrations commemorating his time in Tampa, his appearance is part of the city's history that shouldn't be forgotten, said Rodney Kite-Powell, curator of the Tampa Bay History Center.

"It is yet another interesting connection we have to Cuba that run the full range of good and bad," Kite-Powell said. "And it was yet another revolution in Cuba that some in Tampa supported."

•••

Under Castro, Cuba would go on to embrace communism, befriend the U.S.' Cold War foe, the Soviet Union, become a national security threat through the Cuban Missile Crisis and spend more than five decades isolated from the U.S. until diplomatic relations were restored in July.

Still, those from Tampa who backed Castro during the revolution need not be ashamed, Manteiga said.

Fulgencio Batista, the Cuban president who Castro ultimately overthrew, seized office through a military coup in 1952 and retained power through force that included torture and assassinations.

"Batista was a bad person," Manteiga said. "History has shown that. Many Cubans in Tampa wanted to do their part to get rid of him for the betterment of Cuba. That's all they wanted — a better Cuba."

And Castro was not a communist at the time of his visit to Tampa, Kite-Powell said.

"He was not a capitalist by any stretch, but he did not become entrenched in Soviet-style communism until much later — after his revolution won," he said. "His revolution was promoted as more of a socialist one."

Castro's revolution began on July 26, 1953, when he led an attack on the Moncada Barracks — a Cuban military base. He was captured during that assault and sentenced to prison. When he was released in July 1955, he went to Mexico, where he began planning his second attempt to overthrow Batista.

He named his militia "26th of July" in honor of those who died in that first battle.

To fund the revolution, Castro visited U.S. cities with large Cuban populations. His tour included New York City, Union City in New Jersey, Miami and Tampa.

"It was pretty natural for him to come to Tampa," Kite-Powell said. "The Cuban population in Tampa was radical in nature. It had always been connected to Cuba and revolutionaries."

Most famous was Jose Marti, who from Tampa raised money, planned and then ordered the start of the successful war of independence against colonialist Spain in the late 1800s.

Another Cuban revolutionary known to come to Tampa for financial support was Eduardo Chibas, who in 1929 took part in a failed coup against Cuban President Gerardo Machado.

Chibas would later found El Partido Ortodoxo (The Orthodox Party), a political party that relied heavily on recruiting the nation's youth. Castro was among Chibas' early followers.

Castro was 29 when he arrived in Tampa on Nov. 23, 1955. He took up residence for five days at a home of a native of Cuba who lived at 1614 14th Ave. in Ybor City.

Raul Villamia, a Cuban native who turns 90 on Monday and still lives in Tampa, met Castro at that home. He remembers him looking little like the man the world went on to know with his trademark beard and military fatigues.

"He was somewhat clean shaven and wearing a loose, comfortable suit," said Raul Villamia's daughter, Rhonda Villamia.

Raul Villamia is the last living Tampa resident who was with Castro throughout his visit.

On Nov. 24, 1955, Villamia and a host of others joined Castro on a tour of Ybor City.

They first visited the Vicente Martinez Ybor Cigar Factory on the corner of 14th Street and Ninth Avenue that in the late 1800s was the site of one of Jose Marti's famous speeches rallying Tampa Cubans to his cause. Today, that building houses the Church of Scientology.

Next on the itinerary was the Cuban Club, where Castro signed its guest book and invited members to attend his Nov. 27 speech.

Castro then stopped by the former home of Ruperto and Paulina Pedroso, who in 1893 saved Marti's life when a Spanish assassin poisoned him. That home on the corner of Eighth Avenue and 13th Street has since been demolished and replaced with Jose Marti Park.

The final stop on the tour of Ybor City was the Corral Wodiska Cigar Factory on the corner of 19th Street and Second Avenue that today is an office building but at the time employed hundreds of Cuban cigar rollers.

It was lunchtime, so as the cigar workers dined across the street at the Seaboard Cafeteria, Castro spoke to them of his desire to overthrow Batista.

Raul Villamia then returned to his home, and according to Tribune archives, Castro went on to visit a handful of West Tampa businesses owned by Cubans and ended his day with a trip to the University of Tampa and a late meal with students at the nearby Ayres Diner.

The next day, according to the Villamia family, Castro organized Tampa's branch of the 26th of July at a meeting held at a cafe on 22nd Street.

Castro named Victoriano Manteiga its president on the advice of common friends, including Alberto Bayo, a Cuban military leader of the defeated Loyalists in the Spanish Civil War, and Cuban sculptor Jose Manuel Fidalgo.

Raul Villamia was named the Tampa branch's secretary because his brother, Mario Villamia, was among those who organized the 26th of July movement in New York City.

Another dozen or so men rounded out Tampa's 26th of July movement board of directors.

Still, said La Gaceta's Manteiga, it would be false to say that all of Tampa embraced Castro.

"The reception was somewhat mixed," he said.

Some earnestly believed Batista to be a just president. Others kept their distance from Castro for financial reasons.

"There were people in Tampa doing business with Cuba and it took a lot of bravery to stand against Batista if you were somebody of means who made a good living through Cuba," Manteiga said. "Batista may have stopped that business if he found out."

For instance, Castro's Nov. 27 speech was originally to be held at the Italian Club, but after agreeing to the booking, its leadership canceled.

According to archives, during Castro's speech — ultimately held at the labor union hall in Ybor City at 1226 E. Seventh Ave. where the Sociedad La Union Marti-Maceo is located today — he said members of the Italian Club with "business interests" in Cuba were behind the cancellation.

Such a statement may be inaccurate, said the history center's Kite-Powell.

"I've been told it was because leaders of the Italian Club didn't want to take political sides in that debate," said Kite-Powell, who added that the other social clubs — including the Cuban Club — denied Castro space for his speech for the same reason.

•••

It was inside the labor union hall that the photo of Victoriano Manteiga and Castro was snapped. Castro identified for Patrick Manteiga the other two men seated to the left of him as Lino Elias, secretary of Miami's 26th of July movement, and Castro's liaison, Juan Manuel Marquez. A man standing to the right of Victoriano Manteiga was Castro's bodyguard, Jesus "Chuchu" Reyes.

According to newspaper archives detailing the speech, more than 300 people sat inside with others on the sidewalk where they could listen to Castro via speakers set up outside the building.

Castro began by saying that Cuba had historically been governed by corrupt politicians who used their power to enrich themselves while doing nothing to improve the standard of living of others.

He reminded the crowd that Batista took power by force and said force was again needed to free Cuba.

To form the necessary militia, money was needed, he continued. He said his revolution would end political corruption and give the Cuban people the work, education and medical care they deserved.

His closing remark was, "We will be free or martyrs. Long live a free Cuba."

Rhonda Villamia said her father remembers that Castro received a standing ovation.

A collection totaling a little less that $200 was taken, about half of what he raised in total during his trip to Tampa.

Still, the mark of the trip was not solely about what was given to Castro that week.

Throughout the Revolution, many in Tampa continued to support Castro with donations of cash, clothing, medical supplies, guns and other weaponry. Most was sent to Mexico and then smuggled to Cuba.

On Jan.1, 1959, when news of Castro's victory spread to Tampa, some Cubans in the city celebrated in the streets.

Victoriano Manteiga, Raul Villamia and other members of Tampa's 26th of July movement would later travel to Cuba to meet with Castro.

According to La Gaceta archives, Castro promised to one day return to Tampa to personally thank its residents for their help.

Before he could, relations between the U.S. and Cuba were severed in 1961 and remained so for the next 54 years until a thaw began in July.

"I think most shocking is that 60 years after coming to Tampa, Castro is still an important topic of conversation," Kite-Powell said. "I don't know who would have predicted that. His longevity continues to engage some, fascinate some and anger others. And his story has an early stop in Tampa."

[Editors Note: This article originally ran last year in the Tampa Tribune.]