I shook hands – then sat through a nine-hour speech

Late in 1979, while working as a researcher in the Labour Party's international department, I met Fidel Castro.

At the Cuban Communist Party congress I was lodged in a vast suite in a modern hotel in Havana, and plied with tropical fruit in huge bowls. Stunned at the luxury, I was to discover that senior representatives of more important parties inhabited gorgeous mansions. I was assigned two minders, a man and a woman, whose role was to ensure I saw nothing and talked to no one.

To their unease, I chummed up with fellow social democrats including the recently installed Grenadian prime minister Maurice Bishop, shortly to be assassinated after US troops invaded his island; Felipe Gonzalez, who became prime minister of Spain; and the Salvadorean socialist Hector Oqueli, desperately seeking international friends against the US-funded death squads who were to kill him 10 years later.

We were presented to Castro individually, mounting the marble steps to the presidential palace. When it was my turn, he took my hand kindly and commented upon the encouraging developments in the British Labour Party. The Labour government had recently been thrashed by Margaret Thatcher and a discredited James Callaghan was shortly to be replaced as leader, so I nodded and smiled, wondering what exactly he was driving at.

Delegates were driven to the Plaza de La Revolucion, where the Cuban leader harangued about a million people. The next day in the conference hall we sat through nine hours of Castro's oratory, interspersed with breaks for coffee, lunch, tea and dinner. It was stirring stuff, much applauded, but when Castro passionately defended Soviet foreign policy and the likely imminent intervention in Afghanistan, I remember remaining seated, together with Felipe Gonzalez and his deputy, Alfonso Guerra, while around us thousands rose in a standing ovation.

I wanted to visit Ernest Hemingway's house, but my hosts took me to a rum factory where I was asked to make a speech. I visited Havana Cathedral and met a man sweeping the floor who said yes, he had heard of great changes in Nicaragua, where the Sandinistas had overthrown Somoza, and hoped something similar might happen in Cuba, but I should say nothing to anyone.

I noticed how strapping and healthy ordinary Cubans looked. A few days later I took a rickety Aeroflot flight from Havana to Managua, and was struck by how rough and poorly Nicaraguans seemed by comparison. But how they all, by contrast, breathed freely in those early, heady days of the Sandinista revolution.

Before I left Havana, my minders handed me a bundle of LPs containing that marathon speech in full. I still have them.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager / Media Sales - OTE up to £30,000

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This award-winning company, whi...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Software Developer

£40000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique & exciting opp...

Recruitment Genius: UX Consultant

£35000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: You will be working with a 8 st...

Recruitment Genius: Part-time Editor

£8000 - £12000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A unique opportunity has arisen ...

Day In a Page

A groundbreaking study of 'Britain's Atlantis' long buried at the bottom of the North Sea could revolutionise how we see our prehistoric past

Britain's Atlantis

Scientific study beneath North Sea could revolutionise how we see the past
The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember,' says Starkey

The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember'

David Starkey's assessment
Oliver Sacks said his life has been 'an enormous privilege and adventure'

'An enormous privilege and adventure'

Oliver Sacks writing about his life
'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

The Rock's Chief Minister hits back at Spanish government's 'lies'
Britain is still addicted to 'dirty coal'

Britain still addicted to 'dirty' coal

Biggest energy suppliers are more dependent on fossil fuel than a decade ago
Orthorexia nervosa: How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition

Orthorexia nervosa

How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition
Lady Chatterley is not obscene, says TV director

Lady Chatterley’s Lover

Director Jed Mercurio on why DH Lawrence's novel 'is not an obscene story'
Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests

Set a pest to catch a pest

Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests
Mexico: A culture that celebrates darkness as an essential part of life

The dark side of Mexico

A culture that celebrates darkness as an essential part of life
Being sexually assaulted was not your fault, Chrissie Hynde. Don't tell other victims it was theirs

Being sexually assaulted was not your fault, Chrissie Hynde

Please don't tell other victims it was theirs
A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

A nap a day could save your life

A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

If men are so obsessed by sex...

...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

Rolling in the deep

The bathing machine is back but with a difference
Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935