Cuban leader Fidel Castro gave his longest speech since stepping down four years ago, his address covering Cuba’s past and its fight against US imperialism.

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

The 84-year-old offered no opinions on recent economic decisions. Though he is no longer Cuba’s head of government, Fidel Castro remains head of the Communist Party.

Gesturing to younger members of the crowd, Castro said, “I really envy the youth I see in these guys”.

He deviated little from prepared remarks in the first part of his speech and scathingly criticised the imperialism of the United States.

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 and 14 minutes the longest address in years.

“We haven’t even been here two hours,” he smiled 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.

A swelling crowd, many waving Cubans flags, stretched from an outdoor stage in front of Cuba’s former presidential palace for several 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 and crammed with parked Soviet-era buses that ferried supporters to the speech.

This was 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 defend the Cuban revolution, and their members also lead immunization drives, recycling efforts and other public service campaigns.

Their task is to defend the revolution that overthrew the dictatorship of General Fulgencio Batista and brought the communist government to power on New Year’s 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 night 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 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.

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