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
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
Mock the tweet: Ukip leader Nigel Farage and comedian Frankie Boyle
peopleIt was a polite exchange of words, as you can imagine
Life and Style
fashion
Life and Style
Britons buy more than 30 million handsets each year, keeping them for an average of 18 months
tech
Arts and Entertainment
TV Presenters Ant McPartlin and Dec Donnelly. Winners of the 'Entertainment Programme' award for 'Ant and Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway'
musicAnt and Dec confirmed as hosts of next year's Brit Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Orson Welles made Citizen Kane at 25, and battled with Hollywood film studios thereafter
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Primary Teachers Required in King's Lynn

Negotiable: Randstad Education Cambridge: Primary Teachers needed in King's Ly...

Primary Teachers needed in Ely

Negotiable: Randstad Education Cambridge: Primary Teacher needed in the Ely ar...

Teaching Assistant to work with Autistic students

£60 - £65 per day: Randstad Education Leicester: Randstad Education Leicester ...

KS2 Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Cambridge: KS2 Teacher needed in Peterborough a...

Day In a Page

Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

A Syrian general speaks

A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

Fall of the Berlin Wall

History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

Turn your mobile phone into easy money

There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes
Independent writers remember their Saturday jobs:

Independent writers remember their Saturday jobs

"I have never regarded anything I have done in "the media" as a proper job"
Lyricist Richard Thomas shares his 11-step recipe for creating a hit West End musical

11-step recipe for creating a West End hit

Richard Thomas, the lyricist behind the Jerry Springer and Anna Nicole Smith operas, explains how Bob Dylan, 'Breaking Bad' and even Noam Chomsky inspired his songbook for the new musical 'Made in Dagenham'
Tonke Dragt's The Letter for the King has finally been translated into English ... 50 years on

Buried treasure: The Letter for the King

The coming-of-age tale about a boy and his mission to save a mythical kingdom has sold a million copies since it was written by an eccentric Dutchwoman in 1962. Yet until last year, no one had read it in English
Can instilling a sense of entrepreneurship in pupils have a positive effect on their learning?

The school that means business

Richard Garner heads to Lancashire, where developing the 'dragons' of the future is also helping one community academy to achieve its educational goals
10 best tablets

The world in your pocket: 10 best tablets

They’re thin, they’re light, you can use them for work on the move or keeping entertained
Lutz Pfannenstiel: The goalkeeper who gave up Bayern Munich for the Crazy Gang, Bradford and a whirlwind trawl across continents

Lutz Pfannenstiel interview

The goalkeeper who gave up Bayern Munich for the Crazy Gang, Bradford and a whirlwind trawl across continents
Pete Jenson: Popular Jürgen Klopp can reignite Borussia Dortmund’s season with visit to Bayern Munich

Pete Jenson's a Different League

Popular Klopp can reignite Dortmund’s season with visit to Bayern
John Cantlie video proves that Isis expects victory in Kobani

Cantlie video proves that Isis expects victory in Kobani

The use of the British hostage demonstrates once again the militants' skill and originality in conducting a propaganda war, says Patrick Cockburn
The killer instinct: The man who helps students spot potential murderers

The killer instinct

Phil Chalmers travels the US warning students how to spot possible future murderers, but can his contentious methods really stop the bloodshed?
Clothing the gap: A new exhibition celebrates women who stood apart from the fashion herd

Clothing the gap

A new exhibition celebrates women who stood apart from the fashion herd
Fall of the Berlin Wall: Goodbye to all that - the lost world beyond the Iron Curtain

The Fall of the Berlin Wall

Goodbye to all that - the lost world beyond the Iron Curtain