Cubans ready to get on their bikes for Castro: Labour MP George Galloway visited Havana to meet Fidel and found America's bogeyman stirred but not shaken

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IT'S LATE in the evening and the election bunting, red, white and blue, shimmers in the gloom around the Plaza de la Revolucion. Though Cuba's polling day is last week's news, in old Havana, the colonial maze of narrow streets that is being restored with the help of Unicef's World Heritage Programme, the rumba and the salsa drums are beating out a party rhythm.

There has been a victory, and the party of the Sierra Maestra, the party of Fidel Castro, feels entitled to celebrate. Despite the once ubiquitous rum being in as short supply as everything else here, the party swings.

The fact that much of the West, especially the baleful neighbour to the north, will see nothing to celebrate in another 99 per cent turnout in an election without opposition, is not lost on the people here; it's just that things look different from Cuba, and Cubans are used to being misunderstood.

'What other country under the siege and blockade that we face would have the courage to call elections, a free secret ballot where people can vote yes or no, during a period akin to war?' says Fidel Castro, still bristling after all these years. 'Would your country, with Hitler on the French coast ready to invade, have called such an election?'

We are sitting in his office above Revolution Square - just me, him, his interpreter of 10 years' standing, and a thin, modest, balding man who turns out - he is never introduced - to be a man with little to be modest about: Carlos Lage, at 41, Cuba's Prime Minister and just a heartbeat away from succeeding to the job that has been Fidel's for 34 years.

Castro is more than six feet tall and slim, in his familiar olive- green fatigues and matt-black boots. His military cap covers a mane of silver hair above the most famous beard in the world, now wholly grey. He stopped smoking the familiar Cohiba cigars as his present to himself on his 60th birthday, five years ago, and feels better for it. His eyes still twinkle a little dangerously.

Just as the Comandante en Jefe - the only title ever used about him, though more usually it is just Fidel - is getting into his stride, he stands up suddenly, with the confidence of a politician who knows he is likely to be on TV at that very moment, and bids us all watch the news.

We are watching the Commandante in the central park of Santiago de Cuba, near where he was born, and the crowds fill the screen. Surrounded by TV crews from around the world, including John Simpson of the BBC, he turns the event into a press conference, with the huge crowd as interviewee. One by one, the journalists ask the crowd the questions of the hour. Some they answer with cheerful chants; for the hard ones, figures from the crowd fight for the microphone and answer, to the delight of the leader and the cast of thousands.

'We can see the popularity of Fidel, because we are here,' says the sweating man from German TV. 'But those who are not will not understand why there are no opposition candidates in the field.'

A wizened old farmer takes the floor. 'There are lots of things that such critics don't understand,' he says. 'They don't understand that every child goes to school here; that no child goes to bed without milk and bread here; that infant mortality in this province is 3.2 per 1,000 births, better than Finland, Sweden or even Japan, or that the figure in 1959 was more than 190 per 1,000. And above all, they don't understand that Cuba is a Third World country, and that the enemy is always at our gate, and that he has blockaded and invaded us throughout our 34 years.' And on and on he goes.

'I wish I'd said that,' says Fidel beaming at the television. 'You will Fidel, you will,' I reply. The hacks on TV are impressed, including the hard-to-please John Simpson, but Fidel looks downcast when I tell him that scarcely a moment of footage will make it on to Western screens. He is used to maximum exposure.

Back at the table, we move on to the parlous state of the island economy. What good is socialism if all it can offer is equal misery? How long can the Cuban economy survive? And will it all end in the kind of rout that occurred in Eastern Europe? These are the questions I ask Fidel.

'It's true we have an economic crisis here,' he replies, 'but don't you have one too? Isn't it true that there are 10 million people unemployed in the US and that nearly 20 million are unemployed in the European Community? And what about the economic situation across the huge tracts of the Third World, or that of the former socialist countries? Is this not a deep crisis?

'There is nothing specifically Cuban, or specifically socialist, about the current economic crisis. But where we do suffer is in the double blockade. We are between the hammer of total US embargo and economic destabilisation for three decades and the anvil of the sudden collapse of Eastern Europe, and in particular the USSR, which has meant that 80 per cent of our trading relationships have disappeared overnight.

'Our ability to find new partners and new markets, always difficult, has been made harder by the vindictive death spasms of the Bush administration in passing the Torricelli Act tightening the blockade.

'And do you really think that all Cuban socialism has achieved is equality of misery? You heard the old man tell you on TV about infant mortality rates. Do you know how close Haiti is to here? Our people can see it on a clear day. Have you seen what misery looks like in this region?

'Do you know that we have 47 universities in Cuba? Do you know that in the US they have one teacher per 77 inhabitants; in Canada one per 52; in Cuba one for every 39? Do you know that we have the largest per capita teaching staff in the world; and that the United Nations declared us 'most literate' nation in the world? Nearly twice the rate of Cuban children finish school compared with Latin America as a whole. Do you know that we have one doctor for every 130 families, and that during this crisis we have not closed a single ward, a single classroom.'

'But,' I ask, 'what are you going to do about the effect of this crisis on your economy? I have seen with my own eyes the shortages of food and empty shelves; factories at a standstill waiting for parts or raw materials; the monster queues for buses that don't have the petrol to arrive; the feather-bedded labour force, unable to be laid off, but with no work to do.'

'Well, we have a two-track approach,' comes the reply. 'We are on a massive drive towards food self-sufficiency and import substitution, powered by a biotechnology industry which is making Cuba the greenest country in the hemisphere. We have 40,000 scientists in Cuba, virtually every one of them working flat out on this project. Bumper harvests without chemicals or pesticides: that is our goal. Natural solutions and a no-waste society.

' 'The bicycle is the vehicle of the future,' is one of our slogans. We are the only country in the world importing millions of bicycles and building cycle lanes everywhere. And we are opening our economy to joint ventures with foreign capital and to foreign tourism.

'Already Cuba is the favourite Caribbean destination of the Canadians. Hundreds of thousands of foreign visitors are coming here, flying in directly to the resorts and enjoying safe and economical holidays in joint-venture hotels with Spanish, German and other entrepreneurs. We can be a tourist paradise here.'

Although no one here will admit it, Cuba has high hopes of President Bill Clinton. 'The US President seems an intelligent, sensitive young man from the new generation of US leadership. We will not place any obstacle to the developing of normal relations between us and our neighbour,' says the Comandante in as positive a tribute as is probably healthy for Mr Clinton.

Fidel has seen off no fewer than eight more or less antagonistic US presidents and, though 65, looks fit enough to go a good few rounds yet. With the dropping-off of revolution around the world, he may not pack the sting he once did, but Cuba's champion is still standing and, as the past few weeks have shown, he can still draw the crowds.

(Photograph omitted)