Book Review | Knockout: Fidel Castro Visits The South Bronx 

Knockout: Fidel Castro Visits the South Bronx

By Nelson Denis 


With the passing of Fidel Castro, the book Knockout: Fidel Castro Visits the South Bronx takes on a bittersweet significance. The true story of Castro’s historic visit to the Bronx, it is also a spell-binding blend of New York politics, international intrigue, Secret Service agents, Cuban cigars, and devilish Bronx ministers.


The story could only have been told by the book’s author, Julio Pabón, since he is the atrevido who organized the entire event. With a sharp political eye and impressive detail, Pabón offers a front-row seat to the chaos, danger and ultimate triumph of the visit from El Comandante.

 

It all started in October 1995, when Mayor Rudolph Giuliani invited – then pointedly disinvited – Fidel Castro from a mayoral dinner in honor of the 50thanniversary of the United Nations.

 

According to Pabónthis disrespect was not just toward Fidel Castro and the people of Cuba, but also against the Latino community of New York City.” As a former Young Lord, and senior Latino advisor to City Council President Andrew Stein, Pabón knew exactly what to do.

 

He rallied a corporate sponsor…the National Puerto Rican Business Council. He secured an elegant venue…Jimmy’s Bronx Café. He persuaded a key official…Congressman José Serrano. Fully armed, he fired off a press release on Friday, October 20th which invited Fidel Castro to a dinner in his honor, at Jimmy’s Bronx Café.

 

It was a purely symbolic gesture – an “up yours” to Rudy Giuliani and the Manhattan elite, who thought nothing of snubbing a Latino world leader. But then, to Pabón’s shock and dismay, Fidel Castro accepted the invitation!

 

Pabón had only 72 hours to finalize a guest list, program the evening, cater the event, write several speeches, handle the press, and coordinate the security of a world leader whom the U.S. had tried to assassinate 600 times.

 

This is where Knockout really takes off.

 

Pabón takes “a meeting” with the U.S. Secret Service, who ply him with vague career threats and demand “the name, address, social security number, date and place of birth, and contact information” for every person attending the dinner.

 

 He pleads with Rep. José Serrano to stop inviting people. Within 36 hours, the congressman had swelled the guest list from an “intimate” gathering of 30-50 friends, to a Bronx blowout of over 300…and the Secret Service wanted all their personal information!

 

Pabón  begs Jimmy Rodríguez to not pull the plug…even when theSecret Service sends Jimmy’s staff home (all 125 of them), shuts down his restaurant for two days, and scours every inch of it with bomb-sniffing dogs.

 

The Big Day is even more surreal. Undercover personnel infiltrate the crowd. Dozens of secret service and police cars patrol the streets. Sharpshooters lurk on every roof facing the restaurant. A helicopter circles overhead, and a police gunboat trawls the East River.

 

To top it off, two dueling sets of demonstrators – for and against Castro – scream at each other from behind wooden police barricades. Pabón recognizes some of the anti-Castro crowd and approaches them…they don’t know much about Fidel, but Reverend Ruben Diaz paid them $50 apiece, to yell “Castro go home!”

 

In the end, El Comandante is showered with affection and respect. He expresses great empathy and solidarity with the New York Latino community. The event is an emotional, overwhelming success, and one of the high points is the award of a huge boxing glove with the words “FIDEL #1 – Bronx, NY.”

 

The President of Cuba put on the glove and waved it, to a standing ovation. It was a fitting end to the evening, and the perfect title for Julio Pabon’s book.

 


Knockout is a gutsy and honest autobiography. It is also a living history, a Who’s Who of Bronx politics, a testament to the resilience of our Puerto Rican community, and an astute character study of one of our most influential world leaders over the past half century. Pabón sums it up gracefully: “Fidel was not afraid to die, because he was not afraid to live.”

 


 

 

Nelson Denis served in the New York State Assembly. He is the author of “War Against All Puerto Ricans” (Nation Books, 2015) and the forthcoming novel “Juan Bobo.” Contact Nelson Denis at nelsondenis248@aol.com.

 

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