Castro's Marathon Speech

N E W   Y O R K, Sept. 9, 2000 -- Cuban President Fidel Castro said all he could not say at a summit of world leaders in a 4 hour and 16 minutes speech to an audience of fervent New York sympathizers on Friday night.

The bearded Communist leader joked, gesticulated and lectured on subjects that ranged from the AIDS pandemic in Africa and the calorie intake of Cubans to his first handshake with President Clinton.

Dressed in his trademark olive green military fatigues, Castro was warmly received by a crowd of 2,000 Americans who support rapprochement between the United States and Cuba, which have been ideological enemies for four decades.

In a neogothic church built in 1930 by millionaire J.D. Rockefeller Jr, he denounced growing poverty and disease in Third World countries as a product of economic globalization.

Organized by Activist Groups

The event was organized by dozens of religious, political, labor and student activist groups who want Washington to lift its 38-year-old trade embargo of its Caribbean neighbor.

The crowd waved Cuban flags and chanted “Blockade, no; Cuba, yes” in Spanish, and sang Happy Birthday for Castro, who turned 74 on Aug. 13.

A banner at the front of the packed church on the upper west side of Manhattan said: “Welcome, Comandante Fidel.”

Castro was in New York to attend the three-day Millennium Summit of 150 leaders at the United Nations that focused on alleviating poverty in the world.

‘Catastrophic Situation’

Legendary for his lengthy speeches, Castro chided the United Nations for restricting the leaders’ time at the podium, and said he had spoken for just seven minutes at the summit, two minutes over the allotted time.

“It was an important meeting, because the world is in a really catastrophic situation,” he said.

Castro produced a wad of documents with statistics and expounded at length on social conditions in the world and in the United States, saying the gap between rich and poor was growing, echoing his words to the summit.

Despite the economic hardship in his country since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba continued to send doctors to assist other developing nations, he said.

Castro criticized racial discrimination and capital punishment in the United States and drew strong applause when he called for the freeing of former Black Panther Mumia Abu-Jamal.

Abu-Jamal is on death row for the 1981 killing of a Philadelphia police officer. His case has become a cause celebre for the anti-capital punishment movement in the United States and abroad.

Sleeping Audience

After three hours, and more statistics, some of his audience had fallen asleep in the pews.

Others walked out exhausted, leaving the church half full by the end of his speech. It was almost as long as the 4 hours and 29 minutes he spoke at the United Nations in September 1960, the longest continuous speech ever given in the General Assembly.

Castro rallied his listeners when he recounted the return to school of Elian Gonzalez, the six-year-old boy at the center of a bitter international custody battle after he survived a shipwreck off Florida in which his mother drowned fleeing Cuba.

The boy returned to Cuba in June after courts upheld a U.S. government decision that he should live there with his father and not with exiled anti-Castro relatives in Miami, who tried to block his return.

‘Dignity and Courtesy’

Castro said his brief handshake with Clinton on Wednesday at the U.N. was a simple gesture of “dignity and courtesy” and it would have been cowardly for either of them to have tried to avoid the encounter in a crowded room.

“It all lasted less than 20 seconds,” he said of the incident which was apparently the first handshake between Castro and a U.S. president since the 1959 Cuban revolution.

U.S. officials said Castro approached Clinton and shook his hand. “Everyone knows that a Cuban with dignity does not go begging for a greeting,” he said to a final round of applause.

Castro was expected to leave New York early on Saturday.

Only a handful of protesters, who chanted “What is a murderer doing in church?” showed up outside Castro’s speaking event.

Earlier in the week, others opposed to his visit protested in New York. One group of women wore black in mourning, they said, for political prisoners in Cuba.