HAVANA -- With all the self-assurance of a benevolent dictator 28 years on the job, President Fidel Castro once again managed to mesmerize the Cuban people with a 135-minute reading from his well-worn handbook.
Castro is 60 now, and his speeches have fallen into a formula.
But Cubans, otherwise as inured as the rest of the world to renderings of economic productivity tables, listen with reverent attention when Castro recites them.
This year's state of the revolution speech Sunday night offered no international news, yet nobody except the foreign correspondents here to cover the speech seemed to mind. Few other leaders today have shown such capacity to communicate with their people.
The message laid out upon the layers of statistics was stark: Times are hard here because foreign exchange is in short supply.
"These are difficult days, but days of honor, . . . days of creativity. We have fulfilled our tasks, but we are not satisfied, and we will achieve more," he said.
The crowd roared. Soon he assigned them their task: More voluntary labor, especially in housing, more 14-hour days.
Earlier, using no more than motions of his broad shoulders and thundering rolls of Spanish r's, Castro nearly brought the 100,000 listeners in the Havana province town of Artemisa to their feet simply by quantifying the amount of copper the Cubans would use to build 60,000 new housing units.
Castro did the arithmetic right there before the cameras of national television, somehow generating electricity with the prosaic answer that 1,000 tons will be needed. No one challenged the figure.
Castro's initial objective was to honor Havana province, generally overshadowed by the capital city of the same name.
He chose figures to buttress the claim that this one province was now producing more milk, garlic, cement and secondary-school students than did the whole of Cuba before the revolution in 1959.
Long since, Castro has established to his satisfaction that prerevolutionary Cuba's failings were due to "imperialism," meaning U.S. economic influence.
He strummed that theme almost in passing last night, asking the crowd how many houses of prostitution there were now in Havana province.
It turned out that there are none, whereas before, "under imperialism," there were many.
"How many child-care centers then? None. How many now? Seventy-six." And so on.
The nearest Castro came to recent international events was to denounce the recently defected "traitor," Air Force Gen. Rafael del Pino, who has attacked Cuba in interviews broadcast by U.S. government-operated Radio Marti.
The president did not use del Pino's name but asked if his ilk wished to return to "the repugnant past . . . to repression . . . discrimination against women, racial discrimination" -- in short a return to "houses of prostitution instead of child-care centers." No one wanted to return.
The crowd was perhaps less responsive than often in the past, perhaps in part, no doubt, because it was drenched by a downpour before Castro's arrival. At this point though the applause was fervid.
It was only polite, however, when also in passing Castro acknowledged a "steadfast" factor in the island's development -- Soviet economic aid.
The government of Mikhail Gorbachev is widely believed to be pressing for changes in the Cuban economy so it will require less aid.
At the same time Castro is pressing an economic and ideological "rectification." He stressed this concept last night, somewhat awkwardly, for him, suggesting that it equated with creativity.
Accompanying this "rectification" have been slogans strung by the party for the celebration of July 26 saying Cuba must follow the "correct path" to further development. The suggestion, never spelled out, seems to be that Gorbachev's quest of "openness" and his shift toward market-oriented economics are not necessarily the "correct path" for Castro's Cuba.
While the Cuban news media has followed every turn of Gorbachev's proposals on nuclear arms, it has virtually ignored his economic initiatives.
Cubans are circumspect on this point, no doubt waiting for Castro to lead the way. As for the shortage of Cuban media coverage of these matters, Polish diplomat Maciej Krukowski had an answer for that. Granma, the official daily newspaper of the Communist Party and its principal organ, "has only six pages" he said.
The Soviets had no comment. Glasnost has not found its way to the embassy in Havana, where American journalists were not being received. The Soviets too, it seems, were waiting for Castro to spell out his thoughts on this issue in some future speech.