I definitely won't spend another night with Fide...

April 12, 2002

Well, I wasn't alone, and it should really have been an evening, but you know old Fidel. We were told 24 hours earlier that the Commandante would see us the next evening: a spontaneous gesture that was clearly less spontaneous the more you thought about it: 600-plus guests, ferried across town, escorted by outriders, to a convention hall suitably idle that evening and a reception with lavish food and drink (in a country not famous for its abundance) for hundreds of guests. We should have known what to expect from the rations distributed as we entered. But we'd already grown wary of "official" sandwiches from the digestive disasters of the day before. It was clear that we were expected to hunker down for the long haul.

The rapture that greeted Castro's entrance - quite touching since it came from young Americans - quickly slid into bemused stoicism. Denying that he was about to lecture, Castro answered two questions in four and a half hours. I was impressed by his stamina (for a man of 75): the sheer physical resolve of standing, rooted to the spot, for so long - to say nothing of his control over his bladder. Most members of the audience found it necessary to intermittently excuse themselves.

What evolved was clearly a well-oiled routine. Castro took his stance, a small table to his right with his water and papers (that he never used), his left shoulder slightly tilted towards the audience, an array of hand and arm gestures quickly marshalled to make his points. He was rooted to the same spot throughout, although he occasionally turned to the two lines of apparatchiks sitting, Politburo-like, behind him; their glazed indifference quickly broken when he demanded an instant response; this fact or that to use in his argument.

The talk/answers were discursive but packed with historical and recent political detail. This alone dazzled the Americans, accustomed as they are (under this president) to political debate of the blandest and most ignorant kind. Comparisons with George W. were on everyone's lips afterwards except mine - I was so knackered I could barely talk. Some of the unanswered questions were ludicrous - and called for a firm ticking-off afterwards ("When are you going to shave off your beard?" "Can I give you a hug?"). But that didn't put him off; some students stayed with him till 5am. We were led out to a neighbouring government building - a lavish affair, surrounded by other large villas, all hidden behind extensive, manicured gardens (and this in a city where such ornate housekeeping and gardening is sparse), where everyone ate and drank as much as they wished.

The contrast to the queues outside local shops was, again, obvious. This was clearly a well-organised, well-planned event but was sprung on us at the last minute. I staggered back down the gang-plank eight hours after we left. It wasn't quite a whole night with Fidel but it felt like it. As a piece of political theatre it had been impressive. As a lecture (which he'd promised it would not be), it was a model of what not to do. Unless, that is, you're leader of a revolutionary party and a besieged state, able, for a moment, to hold the floor in front of 600-700 Americans and a couple of Brits.

However, it was oddly moving; a strange, bittersweet experience, watching the last of a dying breed doing what only he does best - speak for hours on end. I'm glad I was there but count me out next time I'm invited to spend a night with Fidel.

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