Much has been written about this truly charismatic figure. But there were facets of his magnetic personality that I was able to personally experience during my three years (1981-84) as India’s ambassador in Havana. As is common practice, I had called on Prime Minister Indira Gandhi before proceeding to Havana. I do not recall her precise words but she made it clear that she regarded this as an important assignment—both because of the personality of Fidel Castro and also the fact that he was at that time chairman of the Non Aligned Movement. It was clear that she set great store by Indo-Cuban friendship.
I arrived in Havana in late August 1981. I was rather disappointed when I learnt that Fidel would not be receiving my credentials. The credentials were accepted by Vice President Carlos Rafael Rodriguez. Rodriguez deserves an article by himself. Brilliant, learned and witty, he had been Fidel’s mentor in the intricacies of Marxist ideology. I was told that he was the Politburo member to whom Foreign Minister Malmierca reported and that he was also the main link with Moscow. Fortunately, he was easily accessible to the Indian ambassador—perhaps to other ambassadors too.
It didn’t take long to get my first sighting of Fidel. Within weeks of my arrival, the Inter-Parliamentary Union held its annual session in Havana. The Indian delegation was to be led by the then Speaker, Balram Jakhar. But as usual, there had been some crisis in our Parliament that delayed his arrival. In the interim, Madhavrao Scindia became the acting head. At the reception hosted by Fidel, we were introduced to him. He looked at us and said, “Indira (he always called her that) is truly wise. She has chosen a young person to be an ambassador here and another young man to lead the parliamentary delegation.” I could not resist responding, “Your Excellency, when you were my age you had already led Cuba for almost a decade.” He smiled but before the conversation could proceed any further he was being introduced other guests.
Our Speaker arrived within days. I got a message that Fidel would like to come to our residence to meet him. I knew he had not gone to other embassies to meet their delegation heads, and so was delighted, if a little puzzled. Soon after, he got talking to Jakhar—a man who could match him in physical stature!—and it became clear that the main reason for this exception was that he was keen to speak to an expert in agriculture, which he had heard the Jat leader was.
Those days, Fidel was talking with great enthusiasm to all and sundry about a ‘miracle’ cow the Cuban scientists had succeeded in breeding. It apparently produced humongous quantities of milk. He invited Jakhar to come and see the cow. This involved travelling to the Isle of Youth, to which they would fly in his personal helicopter. He invited me to accompany them on the drive to the takeoff point, which would take us via a halt at the Bay of Pigs.
With thrill and amazement, we heard Fidel personally describe to us how forces led by him routed the CIA-backed ‘counter-revolutionary’ invaders in April 1961. “They underestimated our intelligence and revolutionary will,” he said, obviously still animated at the thought 20 years later. He also regaled us with stories, by now well-known, of the assassination attempts he had survived.
In the years that followed, I saw Fidel at several receptions he hosted for visiting dignitaries and heads of revolutionary movements. On these occasions, he would chat in a relaxed manner with his guests. Once, soon after the Falklands War, he stopped by me and spoke with admiration of the valour of Gurkha troops who had fought for the British in their victorious war with Argentina. With a twinkle in his eye, he said that if he had just a brigade of Gurkhas he could ensure the triumph of revolutions in Africa and Latin America!
Sometime in 1982, I was invited for my first one-to-one meeting with Fidel. I had not been told the subject to be discussed. Normally my interactions were with the foreign minister and his colleagues, and on rare occasions with Rodriguez. Fidel greeted me in Spanish and went on to explain, half in jest, why he always spoke in Spanish, with an interpreter in attendance. (Very attractive, capable women.) He said that, as is well known, his first foreign visit after the revolution was to the US. Eisenhower found an excuse not to meet him. “He went off to play golf somewhere and I had to meet Nixon.” And then Fidel went on to say—and till today I’m not too sure how serious he was—that he was convinced that half the reason for all the subsequent US-Cuba problems was because he had spoken in English!
He then moved on to the main reason why he had summoned me. His term as the chairman of NAM was drawing to a close. At the previous summit, it had been decided that the next one would be held in Baghdad and the chairmanship would pass to Saddam Hussein. The problem was, because of the Iran-Iraq war many members were disinclined to go there. The summit could not be postponed indefinitely—or Fidel would be accused of extending his chairmanship. Logically, two steps were required to be taken: to persuade Saddam to agree to a change of venue and so, automatically, to surrender the honour of taking over as chairman; and secondly, to decide the new venue and chairman. The two were to some extent related as Saddam would be more inclined to accept a change if it was a country Iraq had good relations with and whose leader was somebody he admired. (By now I naturally had an inkling of what was to follow.) Fidel went on to say that, in his judgement, the only country and leader that could save NAM at this critical juncture were India and its leader, Indira. He realised this was a very delicate matter and had to be handled with total secrecy to ensure India was not embarrassed in any manner.
I duly communicated this to New Delhi. My own personal role in the complex and hectic diplomacy that followed in subsequent weeks was a relatively minor one. What I do know is that once Mrs Gandhi’s consent was received, Cubans under Fidel went flat out, with tremendous energy and skill, to ensure the eventual happy result, persuading Saddam and securing a consensus in India’s favour from the rest of the Non-Aligned countries. And thus it was that the New Delhi summit of NAM, eventually held in March 1983, came to be.
Natwar Singh and Hamid Ansari, both of whom played a crucial role in the successful organisation of the event, have spoken about the critical role played by Fidel at the Summit but the incident most people remember is, of course, the famous hug. It was the first thing Fidel referred to when he summoned me soon after returning to Havana. He had been warned, he said, by advisors that hugging Mrs Gandhi would be against Indian customs and he was quite determined not to do so. But he said the moment when he handed over the heavy responsibility of chairing NAM—and he knew from his own experience how onerous a job it was—to this small, gentle woman (in comparison to his own towering height she was indeed ‘small’), who was also a dear friend, he could not resist giving her a sympathetic hug!
At this, or perhaps a subsequent meeting, Fidel made a rather unusual request. He wanted to invite the celebrated industrialist G.D. Birla! Seeing the surprise on my face, he said many foreign observers falsely malign him as being ‘dogmatic’. Actually he had read about Birla’s work and admired how he had built efficient industries even in the face of all the restrictions by the British imperialists. He was sure Cuba could greatly profit from his advice, specially in rejuvenating Cuba’s textile industry. Incidentally, G.D Birla did accept his invitation but died before he could make the trip. But one of his senior advisors did come and a wing of Birlas went on to establish its presence in Havana.
There was another facet of Fidel’s personality I learnt about from an Indian visitor, one of India’s leading biotechnologists. During a conference in Havana, he and others had a longish discussion with Fidel and were amazed at the depth of his knowledge about biotechnology. Indeed, he seemed to know more than some of the experts present of its applications in medicine. To me, this was another evidence both of his dedication to the cause of public health—“I want Cuba to be a superpower in medicine,” he used to say—and his extraordinary intellectual capabilities.
I had served in China during the Cultural Revolution and had experienced the personality cult around Mao at its zenith. Fidel’s Cuba was very different. While in Mao’s China every single achievement by any Chinese was automatically attributed to the Great Helmsman, I witnessed the 80thbirthday celebrations of the Cuban national poet Nicolas Guillen and the fiftieth anniversary of the first public performance of the great ballerina Alicia Alonso without a single mention of Fidel’s name. In the latter case, despite the fact that Fidel himself was present at the event!
It is easy to get hagiographic while writing about Fidel but one was aware of the serious problems facing Cuban society under his rule. Quite apart from absence of democratic freedoms—though again in a less draconian manner than in China of the Cultural Revolution—the people faced economic difficulties. Again, while people had got accustomed to the security threat from the US, constantly reassured by Fidel’s defiant speeches, there was a degree of popular nervousness when the US invaded Grenada in October 1983. Cuban construction and military personnel were easily defeated. Cuban soldiers also died in Angola. No public announcements were made of casualties in either case but rumours were rife. All this seemed to trigger a degree of silent public discontent but, as far as one could make out, no dent in Fidel’s own personal popularity.
My final meeting with Fidel was on the night of October 31-November 1, 1984. Perhaps no other country announced Mrs Gandhi’s death in as touching a manner as did Cuba. The paper Granma—Cuba’s equivalent of China’s People’s Daily or the Soviet-era Pravda—declared on its first page in big bold letters: “In her death we have lost one of her own”. The embassy had opened a condolence book. Besides hundreds of ordinary folk who stood patiently in pouring rain to pay their respects, a very large number of Cuban government and party leaders came to sign. We received a call from Fidel’s office asking me to take the condolence book to the residence in the evening and he would come and sign it there. They explained that Mrs Gandhi’s tragic death had coincided with the meeting of Communist heads of government in Havana and that on hearing this news they were all either rushing home or to Delhi and Fidel had to see them off, which tied him up all day.
Around 6 pm, we closed the embassy for the day and I moved with my officers to the ambassador’s residence which, as was usual with Fidel visits, had been turned into a mini-fortress. But hours passed by with no signs of the President. As midnight approached, we were beginning to give up hope and thinking of winding up for the night when the doorbell rang, and there stood Fidel in person. I ushered him into the drawing room and noticed that he had come without any interpreter. He explained that both his English-language interpreters were exhausted and so he had sent them home! He said he had been told that I knew enough Spanish to understand him and I could speak English which he would understand. For the next one hour, we conducted a bilingual conversation!
He helped me by speaking slowly and simply. After expressing deep sorrow at the cruel death of ‘a dear friend and great statesman’ and signing the book, he appreciated how there had been a smooth transition to Rajiv Gandhi. Dismissing those who doubted the new prime minister’s capabilities simply on the basis of his youth, he recalled how he himself had led the Revolution and then governed the country at a much younger age. He said the best thing for Rajiv would be to hold an early election and he would be swept to power on the strength of a sympathy wave. Quite a bit of prescience from the head of a one-party state.
As I left Havana on transfer a few days later, my main thought about Fidel was that Cuba, a small island of some ten million people, was just too small a country for a man of his phenomenal abilities. He did transcend this natural limit, though, by emerging as a global revolutionary icon—and, besides being an inspirational figure worldwide, he did make a substantial impact on events in Africa and Latin America. Yes, there were also failures, especially when his interventions became a bit quixotic. But he was a towering spokesman for the Third World at large, with soaring rhetoric demanding economic and political justice for its people.
(The author was India's Ambassador to Cuba, Indonesia, and Bhutan)
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