I shook hands – then sat through a nine-hour speech
Wednesday 20 February 2008
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.
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