Erwin Harris left behind a respectable record of achievement as an advertising executive, an estimable collection of Chinese antiquities (his lifelong hobby), a loving family and a remarkable if little-remembered role in the tortured history of diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba in the early 1960s.
Harris, a Yonkers, N.Y.-born World War II veteran who died in Miami on March 9 at age 91, probably did not tip the scales of history. But from 1960 to 1961, armed with nothing more than a court order from a Florida judge and accompanied by local sheriff’s deputies, he scoured the East Coast confiscating Cuban government property — including the state airplane Fidel Castro parked in New York while on a visit.
It was a dogged mission in pursuit of compensation for what he said Castro owed him: $429,000 in unpaid bills stemming from an advertising campaign promoting Cuban tourism.
At different times, Harris seized two Cubana Airlines passenger planes, five cargo planes, a Cuban navy vessel and a boatload of 1.2 million Cuban cigars arriving in Tampa, Fla. In Key West, he appropriated train cars carrying 3.5 million pounds of cooking lard bound for Havana. Temporary lard rationing in Cuba ensued.
In September 1960, he took control of Castro’s personal government plane while Castro was in New York for a 10-day official visit, and began arranging to have it auctioned.
The Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, stepped in to replace the plane Harris had snatched, and on Sept. 28, a reporter watching Castro board the Soviet aircraft at Idlewild Airport (now Kennedy International) described him as smiling “almost defiantly.”
By then, Castro had added airplane stealing to the litany of abuses he said were being perpetrated against his country by the U.S. government. In a fiery four-hour speech to the United Nations, he said the purpose of the abuse was to restore Cuba to its prerevolutionary status as “a colony” of the United States and U.S. monopolies.
Despite heated phone calls between U.N. officials and the State Department, half the members of the Cuban delegation were still scrambling for flights home and the rest were returning on the Soviet aircraft.
Philip Brenner, a professor of international relations at American University in Washington, said a tense and hectic atmosphere that week probably helped Harris carry out his seizures, especially of Castro’s turboprop plane. Debates had erupted over U.N. membership for the People’s Republic of China, Soviet and U.S. officials were jockeying over proposed disarmament talks, and the first presidential debate between Sen. John F. Kennedy and Vice President Richard Nixon was broadcast that week.
“Everything was so wild, I’d guess the authorities were just blindsided by this guy,” Brenner said.
Many of Harris’ seizures were contested, and some properties, including Castro’s plane, were returned. Harris recovered part of his money, though not all, selling confiscated property at auction far below its value.