My Long, Long Night With Fidel Castro

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It was a night unique even by New York's exacting standards.

Cuba's so-called "maximum leader" wound up his U.N. visit with a pep rally of sympathizers at the historic Riverside Church on the Upper West Side. He told about 5,000 supporters gathered inside and outside the venue that Harlem is "my second home," and he proved it, too: Cuba's probably the only other place he'd get away with speaking for more than four hours on just about anything that crossed his mind.

Flanked by more than 16 U.S. and Cuban security agents, El Commandante sauntered onto the podium in full military regalia. Raising his hands high above his head to chants of "Fidel si, Clinton no," Castro appeared to relish the attention, like a U.S. politician running for reelection.

Then, some local children approached the church altar where Castro stood, carrying two bouquets of flowers. Fidel hugged each one and then presented them with a souvenir Cuban flag. Unfortunately, not all the kids were impressed. A three-year-old simply handed back Castro's gift. El Commandante, surprised at the rebuff, tried again. No luck. After a third attempt, he simply gave it to another child, who now had two flags he didn't know what to do with.

Castro opened his "dissertation" complaining about the five-minute time limit the U.N. had imposed on speakers at its summit. "I did keep my speech to seven minutes in spite of that little blinking red light." Treating heads of state like children "was insulting," he said, thanking his guests for not imposing a time limit on his speech tonight. That was a decision they would soon regret.

No topic seemed to be off limits for the Cuban leader. He slammed the high cost of U.S. health care (kidney transplants are cheaper in Havana), the skyrocketing price of a movie ticket in the Big Apple ($9 compared only five cents in Havana, although he neglected to mention what movies were on offer there) and the fact that an average Baltimore Orioles baseball ticket costs over $18 (it's only 45 cents for a box seat in Havana — are you listening, Steinbrenner?). Just how the bearded one knew this is a mystery — nobody has ever reported seeing El Commandante at Camden Yards, so the information must have come from a Russian spy satellite.

Like the Energizer Bunny, the 74-year-old Castro kept pounding away. When he paused for breath, he might have heard people snoring or noticed the woman who woke with a start, forgot where she was and tried to get up and leave. No such luck.

Three hours into the speech, the press pen looked more like the aftermath of a college fraternity party. Reporters were sleeping on one another, some hid under the church benches, anywhere one could get some shuteye.

"He does this all the time," exclaimed a reporter from Havana. "He's his own audience. He talks to himself."

Added a U.S. security agent, "I have never seen anything like this. This guy never comes up for air!"

After speaking for four hours, two minutes and 22 seconds, Castro finally raised the issue of that handshake with President Clinton. His account: "We all gathered in a line to move to the room" for a group photograph after lunch with Kofi Annan last Wednesday, explained Castro. "As we moved closer to the room, I could see President Clinton greeting each dignitary as they passed by. At first, I was three minutes away, then two, I had nowhere to move but forward, then one! There I was, face to face with the President of the United States! What could I do? I shook his hand, smiled and moved on. It was only 20 seconds. I never thought it would be such a story." He added that he never sought Clinton out nor forced a handshake. "Cubans are not beggars!" he declared. That brought laughter and applause.

Then, Castro looked at his watch (it was 2 a.m.) and wistfully wished everyone "a good evening; no, I mean good morning." He also pledged to return to give "updates" on issues of mutual interest. That brought a stampede to the exits —well, sort of. The problem was, everyone was too tired to run and simply slid silently away slowly into the void of the early morning darkness.