Castro Appearance Adds To Speculation About Role

In his first public speech in four years, a military-clad Fidel Castro stood on the steps of the University of Havana and addressed thousands of students. He warned them U.S. and Israeli tensions with Iran are pushing the world toward nuclear war.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

We turn now to Cuba where Fidel Castro is back in the spotlight after a four-year public absence. This morning in Havana, the 84-year-old Cuban icon gave his first public speech to a mass audience since he underwent intestinal surgery back in 2006.

From Havana, Nick Miroff reports.

NICK MIROFF: Castro summoned thousands of Cuban students to the steps of the University of Havana for a 7:30 a.m. speech. Those steps were the frequent site of protests six decades ago when Castro was a student launching his political career with fiery tirades against the Cuban politicians of the day. But for the thousands of young people who arrived this morning, Castro rule is all they know, and protests are not allowed.

(Soundbite of cheering)

MIROFF: With his 79-year-old brother, Raul, running the island now, Castro has carefully avoided talking about domestic Cuban affairs, instead he's become a kind of antiwar prophet, convinced that U.S. and Israeli tensions with Iran are pushing the world toward nuclear war.

Mr. FIDEL CASTRO (Former President, Cuba): (Foreign language spoken)

MIROFF: The difficult task of warning the world about the dangers we face has fallen upon Cuba, Castro said.

Since his return, Castro has mostly worn athletic apparel or plaid shirts in his televised appearances, but this morning, he suited up in his trademark military fatigues with a green army cap to shield the morning sun as he read from the 35-minute speech.

Mr. CASTRO: (Foreign language spoken)

MIROFF: We don't have time to waste on anachronistic wars that weaken us and drain our energy, Castro said, as he also warned about climate change. We must eliminate all the factors that cause man to view his fellow man as an enemy, he said, or to mistakenly believe that war is a path to peace. If you want peace, you have to change your conscience.

Castro's speech will likely add to speculation from Cuba watchers about his leadership role. He remains head of the island's Communist Party and consults with his brother on all major decisions. Perhaps most important, he looked more energized than animated today than in any of his previous appearances. He even paused at one moment to banter with the crowd. I've got good news, he jokes, I'm almost done. He was referring, of course, to the speech.

For NPR News, I'm Nick Miroff in Havana.

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