Last Sunday, people celebrated International Worker’s Day around the world, and in Havana. Seven years ago on May 1, I saw Fidel Castro speak for the first time in my life.
Late on the night of April 30, my American friends and I had walked to the famous steps of the University of Havana’s main campus, where we had been told to come before the big day. We arrived to find hundreds of students dancing to reggaeton in the darkness, and passing little boxes of rum from one mouth to the next. Around 2 a.m., the party transitioned into a chaotic scene of student leaders distributing tiny leaflets with revolutionary chants written on them, small paper flags, and red t-shirts for everyone to wear. And we then began our march to the Plaza de la Revolución, a sea of red moving steadily down the avenue.
When we arrived, we found the section reserved for university students and moved towards the front of the area. As if waiting to buy tickets for a Bruce Springsteen concert, or the year’s most coveted Christmas toy—both things they surely had never done—our classmates laid their jackets on the ground, curled up, and went to sleep. No one had warned us about this part of the event. We watched for a while, perhaps overly fascinated by the sight of several hundred young Cubans sleeping before the larger-than-life statue of José Martí that sits at the Plaza’s center.
Early the next morning, the loudspeakers that marked the perimeter of the Plaza began to boom with the energetic voice of a man who we could only assume to be a charismatic Caribbean incarnation of Big Brother. This was the official state wakeup call. The plaza was now filled with battalions of soldiers and servicemen, delegations of PCC party members from each province, and countless habaneros, already fanning themselves in the early morning sun.
We listened to speech after speech, watched unusually patriotic salsa dance numbers between speeches, and observed the crowd, until it was time for Fidel. Those who were not standing, stood. Children were lifted onto shoulders. The plaza became a shimmering field of little paper flags, waving vigorously in the humid spring air. Fidel moved gingerly, but without assistance, to the lectern, his green comandante uniform making him almost indistinguishable from the rows of soldiers in the foreground. He spoke for two hours, periodically reaching peaks at which the crowd would shout, ¡Viva la revolución! ¡Viva Cuba libre! I don’t remember much of the speech now, and I don’t know that it was particularly remarkable, as his speeches go. But I remember that I understood every word he said. Fidel’s voice and diction were impeccably clear, clearer than any Cuban I had heard speak since I’d arrived four months before. His ruthless, unflinching commitment to the triumph of this Revolution seemed palpable as ever. One could see that like a great performer, he understood how to move people.
Though he went on for about two hours, people began to leave thirty or forty minutes into his speech. When he was finished, the applause quickly faded and the crowd began to flow outward, down the many streets that lead to the Plaza. As we made our way home, my American friends and I listened as the speeches continued. Aging loudspeakers (that I had never noticed until that morning) hung from the telephone poles on each street, emitting the tinny sound of every speaker, and each and every slogan. You could hear the revolution for miles.
Today marks the inauguration of embedded photos on half-wired! I certainly won’t be able to do this with every post, but I’m hoping to add some color once in a while from now on. Enjoy.