Castro address tens of thousands for over an hour

Fidel Castro gave his longest speech since illness forced him from power four years ago.

Havana: Fidel Castro gave his longest speech since illness forced him from power four years ago, but limited his comments on Tuesday to describing Cuba`s past and avoided any mention of the tumultuous economic changes the country is embarking on under his brother`s leadership.

The speech before tens of thousands marked the 50th anniversary of the establishment of neighborhood watch groups designed to defend the government against subversive activity.

As is his style lately, the 84-year-old offered no opinions on contemporary Cuban life, such as the recent decision to fire half a million workers and embrace small pockets of private enterprise.

Nor did Castro say anything about his health or future plans. Though he is no longer Cuba`s leader, he remains head of the Communist Party. Instead he spent much of the first part of his address quoting his own old speeches and joking about his age.

Gesturing to younger members of the crowd, Castro said, "I really envy the youth I see in these guys" even though he himself appeared stronger than he did during appearances even a few weeks back.

He used reading glasses to decipher prepared remarks and deviated little from them at first, mostly railing against what he described as the all-powerful imperialist monster of the north: The United States.

But when his prepared text ended, Castro began talking without notes, waving his hands for emphasis and noting that the morning sun was not yet unbearable. His second wind pushed the speech to an hour, 14 minutes — the longest address in years though far from the five- and six-hour speeches that were routine in the younger days of the revolution.

"We haven`t even been here two hours," he finally grinned in conclusion. "But I`m leaving now. It`s getting hot."

The former Cuban leader wore olive-green fatigues without any insignia designating rank, as well as a military cap, as he has on past occasions.

Castro ceded Cuba`s presidency to his younger brother Raul after his health crisis of July 2006 and has said nothing publicly to indicate he is itching to retake power since emerging from the shadows several months ago and launching a series of public appearances.

A swelling crowd, many waving Cubans flags, stretched from an outdoor stage in front of Cuba`s former presidential palace for blocks through parks and surrounding streets. "Fidel! Fidel!," it chanted, and "Where ever you lead, Fidel!"

A surrounding downtown area normally filled with strolling tourists and hulking Detroit sedans from the 1950s was instead blocked off by police and crammed with parked Soviet-era buses that ferried supporters to the speech.

That effort made it by far the largest crowd Castro has addressed in years. He spoke to a smaller group of university students for 35 minutes earlier this month.

The Committees for the Defense of the Revolution keep an eye on their neighbors and report behavior considered subversive, but they also lead immunization drives, recycling efforts and other public service campaigns.

Their task is to defend the communist government and the revolution that brought Castro to power on New Years Day 1959, "house by house and block by block." A banner hanging behind Castro on Tuesday featured the logo of the committees and read, "Defending Socialism and the Revolution."

Castro announced their creation during a nighttime speech from nearly the same location at the presidential palace on Sept. 28, 1960, amid a wave of bomb attacks meant to destabilize his new government. Then, he denounced the U.S. as masterminding those attacks, and said Cubans then fleeing the island in droves for exile there would be disappointed with American life.

Tuesday`s event opened with a snippet of video from that night a half century ago. Castro smiled playfully as he watched a younger version of himself gesturing and wagging his finger in the air during the animated 1960 speech.

"What a privilege it is for me to come back here to meet with all of you 50 years later," he said.

Bureau Report

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