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
peopleFrankie Boyle responds to referendum result in characteristically offensive style
Lewis Hamilton will start the Singapore Grand Prix from pole, with Nico Rosberg second and Daniel Ricciardo third
F1... for floodlit Singapore Grand Prix
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvHe is only remaining member of original cast
Arts and Entertainment
tvHighs and lows of the cast's careers since 2004
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Fans hold up a scarf at West Ham vs Liverpool
footballAfter Arsenal's clear victory, focus turns to West Ham vs Liverpool
New Articles
i100... she's just started school
New Articles
Life and Style
Couples have been having sex less in 2014, according to a new survey
Arts and Entertainment
musicBiographer Hunter Davies has collected nearly a hundred original manuscripts
New Articles
i100... despite rising prices
Holly's review of Peterborough's Pizza Express quickly went viral on social media
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Cover Supervisor

£75 - £90 per day + negotiable: Randstad Education Group: Are you a cover supe...

Marketing Manager - Leicestershire - £35,000

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (CIM, B2B, MS Offi...

Marketing Executive (B2B and B2C) - Rugby, Warwickshire

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly successful organisation wit...

SEN Coordinator + Teacher (SENCO)

£1 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Job Purpose To work closely with the he...

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam