There was a buzz of excitement in the main lounge where students and faculty had assembled for a day-long pre-arrival briefing on Cuba. One of the two professors, both Cuban exiles living in the US, told us there was a good chance we would be treated to a Fidel Castro speech although we would not know for sure until we docked in Havana the next day.
The fourth in a series of blogs about Semester at Sea, a round-the-world voyage with 600 students. David Mould is the author of Postcards from Stanland: Journeys in Central Asia (Ohio University Press, 2016) and the upcoming (2109) Monsoon Postcards: Indian Ocean Journeys. Read excerpts at www.davidhmould.com (Travel Blogs) or Facebook /PostcardsFromStanland/
Because of the embargo on trade and travel, few US citizens had an opportunity to visit Cuba. As an educational group, SAS was granted a special entry permit, and the president had been informed. For Castro, the arrival of more than 600 undergraduates and their faculty provided an opportunity to speak to Americans directly and counter the anti-regime propaganda of the Bush administration. “What will he talk about?” one student asked. “Will we be allowed to ask questions?” asked another. No one asked the question in the back of my mind: how long will he talk? Castro held the Guinness Book of Records title for the longest speech ever delivered at the United Nations (four hours, 29 minutes) in September 1960. His longest speech on record in Cuba was in 1986--seven hours, 10 minutes at the Communist Party Congress in Havana. If there was to be a speech, I knew we would be in for the long haul.
A few hours after our arrival, the news arrived: the next evening, we had been invited to a speech followed by a reception at the Communist Party convention center. A convoy of buses shuttled us to the center, in an upscale district of Havana where many diplomats had their residences. In the hall, where there was seating for close to 2,000, we were joined by Cuban university and high school students. Castro spoke extemporaneously for more than three hours. According to the Cubans, this was a concession to his foreign guests; some had heard five or six-hour speeches. Although the simultaneous translation was good, it’s difficult to summarize the speech because it ranged widely from the achievements of the Cuban revolution in health care and education to colonial history to the US embargo (Cubans call it a blockade) to a critique of global financial systems and institutions. Castro said he wanted questions from the audience but took only one on the situation in Venezuela and took 45 minutes to answer it (although he used the opportunity to discuss other issues on his agenda). Some of us stifled yawns. We’re simply not used to the long political speeches that are a tradition in communist political systems. However, it was a bravura performance. At age 76, Castro demonstrated that he not only had stamina but was well read on many subjects, including US history, and had a remarkable memory for names, facts and figures. But he made no concessions to the sound bite culture of Western media.
The speech was followed by a reception at a government house, with food (including, Castro claimed, American chicken), an open bar, a band and dancing. Clearly, Castro was trying to impress his new American friends. The question “Is it ethical for the Cuban government to throw a party for American students when Cubans are short of food and medical supplies?” proved to be an excellent discussion point when shipboard classes resumed two days later.
Next week: Old Havana