N E W Y O R K, Sept. 9, 2000 -- Cuban President Fidel Castrosaid all he could not say at a summit of world leaders in a 4hour and 16 minutes speech to an audience of fervent New Yorksympathizers on Friday night.
The bearded Communist leader joked, gesticulated andlectured on subjects that ranged from the AIDS pandemic inAfrica and the calorie intake of Cubans to his first handshakewith President Clinton.
Dressed in his trademark olive green military fatigues,Castro was warmly received by a crowd of 2,000 Americans whosupport rapprochement between the United States and Cuba, whichhave 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 inThird 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 liftits 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, whoturned 74 on Aug. 13.
A banner at the front of the packed church on the upperwest side of Manhattan said: “Welcome, Comandante Fidel.”
Castro was in New York to attend the three-day MillenniumSummit of 150 leaders at the United Nations that focused onalleviating poverty in the world.
Legendary for his lengthy speeches, Castro chided theUnited 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 areally catastrophic situation,” he said.
Castro produced a wad of documents with statistics andexpounded at length on social conditions in the world and inthe United States, saying the gap between rich and poor wasgrowing, echoing his words to the summit.
Despite the economic hardship in his country since thecollapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba continued to send doctors toassist other developing nations, he said.
Castro criticized racial discrimination and capitalpunishment in the United States and drew strong applause whenhe called for the freeing of former Black Panther MumiaAbu-Jamal.
Abu-Jamal is on death row for the 1981 killing of aPhiladelphia police officer. His case has become a causecelebre for the anti-capital punishment movement in the UnitedStates and abroad.
After three hours, and more statistics, some of hisaudience had fallen asleep in the pews.
Others walked out exhausted, leaving the church half fullby the end of his speech. It was almost as long as the 4 hoursand 29 minutes he spoke at the United Nations in September1960, the longest continuous speech ever given in the GeneralAssembly.
Castro rallied his listeners when he recounted the returnto school of Elian Gonzalez, the six-year-old boy at the centerof a bitter international custody battle after he survived ashipwreck off Florida in which his mother drowned fleeingCuba.
The boy returned to Cuba in June after courts upheld a U.S.government decision that he should live there with his fatherand not with exiled anti-Castro relatives in Miami, who triedto block his return.
‘Dignity and Courtesy’
Castro said his brief handshake with Clinton on Wednesdayat the U.N. was a simple gesture of “dignity and courtesy” andit would have been cowardly for either of them to have tried toavoid the encounter in a crowded room.
“It all lasted less than 20 seconds,” he said of theincident which was apparently the first handshake betweenCastro and a U.S. president since the 1959 Cuban revolution.
U.S. officials said Castro approached Clinton and shook hishand. “Everyone knows that a Cuban with dignity does not gobegging 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 amurderer doing in church?” showed up outside Castro’s speakingevent.
Earlier in the week, others opposed to his visit protestedin New York. One group of women wore black in mourning, theysaid, for political prisoners in Cuba.