THE NEW REPUBLIC - August 2, 2004


WHEN FIDEL CASTRO STARTS TO SPEAK, he sounds choked up, moving slowly through each sentence. "It seems," he begins, "that this gathering," pauses, "has broken," pauses again, "all the records." Castro tells us that we, the people assembled for his May 1, 2004, speech in the Plaza de la Revolucion, are a colossal crowd. People wave little paper Cuban flags, filling the air with flapping.

Long before Castro approaches the microphone at 9 a.m., Cubans have been loading onto busses and filing into the enormous plaza. I was more than curious to join the crowd. Having lived in Cuba for seven months on a fellowship, I could count the number of devout revolucionarios I'd met on one hand, and I was also aware that the government--through jobs or schools--pressures people to attend. When a Cuban friend invited me to an all night pre-May Day rally at the University of Havana, I eagerly went along.


IN THE UNIVERISTY COURTYARD, the party was raging by 1 a.m. I asked my friend if anyone really wanted to show up. She shook her head. "But since there's music and dancing,…people come." While we observed the crowd, she pointed out "your people"--Americans. They're everywhere. The largest group of foreign students at the University of Havana is from the United States. Neither country makes it easy--they must fly through Cancun and live in isolated housing--but they come in hordes. When the music stopped, we all went to the university's historic steps, a gathering place for protests in the Batista era. The significance cannot be lost on young Cubans. The government keeps memories of the Revolution alive: down with batista--murderer is painted on a house facing the steps.

We march through a dark city with policemen lining the route. My section of the crowd is the Arts and Letters department--or, more precisely, Arts and Letters majors in the Young Communist Union. Students who don't join the Union risk hurting their job prospects; many join begrudgingly. But the Union does have its true believers. Within our section, a serious-looking student keeps track of all attendees. He seems perturbed that the Tourism majors are showing up Arts and Letters with their cheers. We arrive at the Plaza by 4 a.m., just as my legs begin to feel like liquid. Inside its gate, I am surprised to find bodies stretched as far as I can see. The early arrivers are sprawled out, leaving no path for those behind them. It's a mess. Cubans push and complain about the ubiquitous Venezuelans, who are snapping photos and seem genuinely excited--the Venezuelans are just getting a revolution going, not carrying around the flag of their grandparents. I crash on the cement and later open my eyes to a bright sky. The Union leader motions to my friend to stand. She rolls her eyes but  gets up. I don't have to worry about my conduct grade in the Communist Party, so I stay seated until I hear the words "comandante en jefe." A soft "FI-del" chant shorts, but doesn't pick up much momentum. Castro clears his throat into the microphone, pauses, and begins.


CASTRO IS FAMOUS FOR  LONG SPEECHES. In earlier years, he often went on for six hours straight, though old age has shortened the diatribes. Yet, when Castro begins his speech with the theme of American hypocrisy, I have a feeling we're in for a long one. Castro denounces countries that are subservient to the United States, saving praise for Cuba and Venezuela. "Some day," he muses, "they'll have to construct a monument for those countries that…risked everything and voted against the Yankee projects. Castro moves on to today's global conflicts. The striking thing about Castro's year in review, aside from the way he pronounces Bush's name as if exhaling a ball of fire ("Booosh"), is that he alternates between playing commentator and narrator. He seems to assume, and correctly so, that listeners are not abreast of world events. Though Cuba's leader has an intense interest in foreign affairs--he devours foreign newspapers--Cuban journalism offers little more about the outside world than slim anti-American propaganda. Many Cubans avoid the newspaper put out by the Communist Party. In any event, due to the awful economic situation, few Cubans have the luxury of thinking beyond dinner. 

There are times, however, when I think Castro is not speaking to us. The longer he dwells on foreign affairs, the more I get the feeling he would rather slip his speech under the door of the Oval Office. This is why Castro loses his audience--even the young Union leader sneaks off before the speech finishes. Schooled in Castro's view of world affairs for decades, the Cubans have heard it all before: The big bad imperial power has been on the verge of invading for 50 years. But half their families are in Florida, and Cubans know what life is like stateside. (" Carlos mops floors in Tampa and was able to buy a car in less than a year!" Cubans often say.) Castro have Cuba its pride back, but they're over it. Now people are interested in living better.

This is not to say that Castro is a bore. You can feel his charm when he jokingly calls his May address a iscursito, or little speech, an hour after approaching the podium, and people chuckle. And Castro is sharp. When I crouch down to rest my feet, I find a Cuban friend of mine, equally exhausted, on the pavement. "We're in our twenties and can barely get by without a night's rest. He could go on for hours and hours without a wink of sleep, and the man's seventy-seven," he says, pointing at the podium with admiration. 

Castro does eventually wrap up, and the crowd spills into the streets. As I watch people packing onto rickety old buses, I am struck by how much the May Day routine typifies today's Cuba: conditions everyone complains about, politics falling on tired ears, police infiltrating everything, and of course, the same enduring legend keeping it all in one piece. I won't be surprise if Castro begins next year's May Day speech with the same slow sentence. The Cubans will wave their paper flags and go home to sleep off the heart dose of politics, so they can go back to getting by.