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The day I shook the hand of Fidel Castro

David Hencke photo
David HenckeLondon
The day I shook the hand of Fidel Castro
The death of Fifel Castro today has reminded me of my visit to Cuba in 1978 to attend the World Youth Festival and how it became not only a showcase for Cuba but allowed the rising student elite of Britain to hone their skills for future roles.

Today's death of Cuban leader Fidel Castro at the age of 90 brings back an extraordinary memory of an event that took place nearly 40 years ago when Cuba hosted the 11th World Youth Festival.

The event was organised by the left wing World Federation of Democratic Youth under the banner " For Anti Imperialist Solidarity,Peace and Friendship " and some 17,000 participants from 145 countries attended.

At the time in 1978 it attracted a fair amount of criticism from the Establishment even though we had a Labour government. There were  questions in Parliament on whether the government was funding the British delegation ( it wasn't).

It also became " the event to be seen at" for the rising elite of the British student movement - whether from the Left or the Right - who formed the British delegation.

I hitched a ride to report the event for the Guardian - therefore adding to the view that this was a Leftie event. I also conned the Cuban Communist authorities - by bringing along my wife, Margaret, by getting accreditation through a friend as representing the youth wing of British electrical engineers ( she wasn't). I can't remember whether I told the Guardian newsdesk, I probably didn't.

Not only was this a rare opportunity to get to Cuba which then had no tourist industry but it gave me an insight into a generation of British students who went on to become part of the country's elite.

Cuba was the place that Peter Mandelson honed his dark art of plotting before going on to advise Tony Blair and damage Gordon Brown. He was then the master of arranging meetings in dark rooms to weaken any support for the world Communist order. I had his measure then.

Charles Clarke, who went on to become a pretty establishment Labour home secretary, was seen then as a dangerous Red Marxist, who had gone out to Cuba in advance to organise everything for the British delegation. His biggest achievement was probably to obtain a huge supply of British stainless steel cutlery ( knives and forks were in short supply in Cuba) and they got there despite US sanctions.

Tom Shebbeare, then of the British Youth Council who went on to advise Prince Charles through the Princes Trust, was another big player.

So was Sue Robertson, a SDP follower when the handsome David Owen was the pin up boy for the moderate centre left, and went on to become a director of Channel Four, was also in the moderate camp.

And Young Tory David Hunt, who went on to become a government minister under Margaret Thatcher, was in the delegatio. He became closer to " Tory wet" Peter Walker. He was coal minister during the miner's strike of 1984-5.

As for Cuba itself there were certain facts at the time that no one wanted to know. The Foreign Office could not believe that you needed no vaccinations to go there because of its standards of health care. And education was a huge thing.

Also remarkable was that it was then trying to be a Communist state but was far too Caribbean laid back for the Russian allies who despaired at its lack of Stalinist efficiency.

I remember chatting in halting Spanish to a Russian soldier ( it was neither our first language) who despaired at the laid back ways of the Cubans after living in the ruthless world of Moscow. I could see neither Russia nor Cuba were natural bedfellows.

The inefficiency was shown when Margaret and I gave our female minder the slip and wandered off to see laid back Havana for ourselves one evening. We got told off later but nothing happened.

The final image I have was a huge rally of thousands of people listening to Castro's oratory for over two hours and later meeting him and shaking his hand.  Eat your heart out Jeremy Corbyn -  your mass meetings have a long way to go to beat Fidel's.

There is rare footage of this rally in 1978 here 

#Fidel Castro, #Cuba, #Peter Mandelson, #World Youth Festival, #1978

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