NEW YORK-Fidel Castro, here for a United Nations summit meeting, addressed an enthusiastic crowd of 3000 on Sept. 8 at Riverside Church. An overflow of 1000 heard his speech on loud speakers outside.
Riverside Church is the interdenominational and interracial church on the outskirts of Harlem at which Martin Luther King delivered his denunciation of the Vietnam War.
The crowd was notable for its diversity of age, color, and ethnicity. Perhaps 40 percent to 50 percent were African Americans, and there were many Latinos. A number of international guests attended in bright African and Asiatic garb as well as Palestinians wearing T-shirts demanding the right of return.
Although The New York Times managed to find two women with anti-Castro signs for the photograph accompanying its news story, no one else saw any hostile demonstrators. Ramon Sanchez, the head of the anti-Castro so-called Democracy Movement, told the New York Daily News that “we chose to ignore” the meeting since “we don’t want to cause any conflicts with the African American community, which feels differently about Castro.”
This prudent decision, a retreat from their stance in the past, marked a victory for opponents of the U.S. embargo of Cuba.
The program was shortened since it was late in getting under way as a result of security precautions. However, the audience did get to sing “Happy birthday, dear Fidel” in honor of his 74th birthday.
In reply, Castro thanked the audience and commented that it was a miracle he had lived to that age, adding that the audience will understand what he meant. He was evidently alluding to the many attempts by the CIA to assassinate him.
Castro’s speech lasted for more than four hours (including the time for translation), from just before 10 p.m. until a little after 2 a.m. It was delivered in a quiet, conversational manner, without oratorical flourishes.
Although he spoke without notes except for a 10-minute segment in which he quoted UN reports, Castro’s command of the copious statistics he cited was quite remarkable. The audience listened intently, from time to time applauding the recital of Cuban accomplishments.
Castro began his speech by describing the catastrophic situation in the world today, the result of the policies and institutions of the dominant countries. The already enormous gap between rich and poor countries as well as between rich and poor in all countries is widening considerably.
To cite just a few of his salient statistics, the per capita income of 100 countries is lower than it was 15 years ago. The debt of the Third World, which strangles its development, is greater than ever.
The developed countries control 97 percent of all patents, and the great corporations think only of profit, not of satisfying need. Only 1 percent of research related to health is devoted to medications for the illnesses afflicting the Third World.
The consequence is that 11 million children die every year from preventable diseases. One out of three infants in the Third World is born underweight, and two out of five children suffer from growth retardation. In sub-Saharan Africa life expectancy is less than 48 years.
Turning to Cuba, he stated that Cuba is a poor country but it tries to distribute wealth as evenly as possible. Prices of necessities and of prescription drugs are the same as they were 40 years ago. The cost of admission to a movie or to a museum is five cents.
There is one doctor for each 68 persons. People who receive drugs in hospital do not have to pay for them, and transplants are free. Life expectancy at birth is 75 years.
Cuba, Castro went on, is governed by the principle of solidarity with the poor all over the world. It has provided without charge 500,000 teachers and technicians to Third World countries, particularly in Africa, who serve as volunteers. It has more doctors working in the Third World than ever before, with 400 in Haiti alone.
Furthermore, it has recently opened an international medical school for Latin American countries, with a capacity of 40,000 students that will give a medical education free of charge. Some 3000 students are there now, and 8000 are expected within four years.
Castro told of how he met a U.S. congressman from the Black Caucus who complained to him of the poor health care in Black ghettoes. In response, Castro offered to receive 250 students a year for a medical education without charge, provided that they commit themselves to return as doctors to their communities. (See next article.)
“I had to come to Harlem,” Castro said. “It is in Harlem where I will find my best friends. He spoke of the discussions in Cuba after Shaka Sankofa (Gary Graham) was executed and of the sympathy for Mumia Abu-Jamal, fighting to save his life after having been unjustly condemned to death.
In the course of his talk, Castro told the audience of how Elian Gonzalez is getting along. Elian is well adjusted and happy, he said, a normal child who has not been singled out in any way. His father, who had been offered a million dollars while in the United States to defect but refused, was back at his humble job.
Castro also told of his handshake with Clinton that raised such a hubbub in the American mass media, a U.S. government spokesperson at first falsely denying that it had taken place and the New York Daily News faking a photo of it.
What happened was that Castro had been walking along to proceed to an official photograph when he saw Clinton just ahead shaking hands with other heads of government coming down the line. Wedged between tables, he couldn’t easily get away, and it would have been both cowardly and rude for him to have done so. Instead, “with great dignity and courtesy,” he simply offered his hand, which Clinton shook.
Castro concluded his speech by apologizing for the length of time he had taken and wishing the audience “Good Morning.”