Open Essay

Farewell Fidel

Sunanda K Datta-Ray is a journalist and author of several books. He is an Open contributor
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The Communist who made history after the end of history

THE DUKE OF Bedford didn’t have India in mind when he wrote that ‘the social significance of Marks (& Spencer) was greater than that of Marx; or to put it another way: Simon (Lord Marks who developed the store into a British icon) was a more important—and more successful— revolutionary than Karl.’ But his words resonate in an India where a $1-billion house and a Rs 500-crore wedding testify to the primacy of consumerism over conscience so that Fidel Castro’s vow to temper ‘vulgar materialism’ with a ‘humanist alternative’ sounds quaintly Nehruvian.

Castro (1926-2016) was a nationalist who believed that the American Green Card is not life’s ultimate achievement for any self-respecting nation or individual. He was a Communist who survived Communism. He made history after the end of history. Yet, his passing caused barely a tremor even in Calcutta, which was supposed to straddle the revolutionary road from Peking to Paris. Time was when mammoth meetings supporting Ho Chi Minh ground Calcutta to a halt. “When it rains in Moscow the lalbhais open their umbrellas in Mumbai,” Bal Thackeray sneered. “China’s chairman is our chairman!” exulted Charu Mazumdar. The only Indians who seem to mourn Castro’s passing are in Kerala. Narendra Modi, who attended Lee Kuan Yew’s funeral, has left it to Rajnath Singh and a ragbag of second-rank politicians to attend Castro’s.

Was Castro out of sync with the world in which he died at the age of 90, or has the world debased itself with greed and gluttony? Castro wanted Cuba for Cubans. India is jittery that Donald Trump might send Indians back to India by cutting down on H1-B visas. Castro believed in austerity. Indians affect austerity only when opulence is unaffordable. Castro changed his atheist state to secular. Ultra-nationalist Indians have decreed there is no such thing as ‘secular’. Anyone who demurs at dictatorial majoritarianism is damned as ‘pseudo- secular’. Castro claimed Karl Marx would have agreed with Christ’s Sermon on the Mount. He did not snap ties with the Vatican or invent a local church like China’s Patriotic Catholic Association. He acknowledged his people’s faith and respected it. The intellectual flexibility he displayed is disappearing as politicians whip up populist passions.

His failure—shared with many Third World leaders of independence—lay in not identifying legitimate material aspirations and fulfilling them. Pope John Paul II’s comment about higher wages and “proper housing” when he visited Cuba in 1998 prompted Castro’s wry observation that some papal speeches read as if they were written by “a journalist from (Cuba’s Communist Party newspaper)”. Free education and medicare ensured Cubans had enough for their needs. Greed is a different matter, and being next door to Florida’s lavish consumerism fuelled discontent.

Castro was a nationalist who believed that the American Green Card is not life’s ultimate achievement for any self-respecting nation or individual. He was a Communist who survived Communism

Which other global leader would have criticised foraging in Bill Clinton’s sex life as a “violation of his human rights”? Castro could be understanding because he was a revolutionary before he was an ideologue and a Latin before he was a revolutionary. Machismo had a role in Latin American life. “There are many countries,” he admitted, “where it is a good idea for the candidate in order to be elected to have a lot of girlfriends, where being a womaniser is a virtue.” My old friend, the cartoonist Abu Abraham, who visited Cuba in 1962, described Castro bursting unannounced into his hotel and spoke of the three hours they spent in a nightclub.

The burly bearded revolutionary who descended from the Sierra Maestra mountains in 1959 after Che Guevara had forced Fulgencio Batista, the US-supported dictator, to flee to Dominica with his ill-gotten billions, wasn’t beyond the pale for discerning Indian prime ministers. “The first person who came to see me was Prime Minister Nehru,” Castro told Kunwar Natwar Singh. “I can never forget his magnificent gesture. I was thirty-four years of age, not widely known. I was tense. Nehru boosted my morale. My tension disappeared.” Rajiv Gandhi followed in 1985, Manmohan Singh in 2006.

Castro himself visited India twice (1973 and 1983) as Indira Gandhi’s guest. The bear hug in which he famously enveloped his “sister” outside Vigyan Bhavan at the inauguration of the seventh non-aligned nations summit in 1983 must be one of history’s most dramatic greetings. There was a trivial sequel. Reporting the NAM’s human interest highlights, I noted Mrs Gandhi’s cool reception of Sri Lanka’s elderly president, JR Jayewardene, after Castro had released her. I wrote that I didn’t expect her to kiss Jayewardene, as she always kissed Sirimavo Bandaranaike. I certainly didn’t expect her to fling her arms round the sarong- draped Sri Lankan and draw him to her breast, like Castro. But did the handshake have to be so distant? I asked. Did she have to look as if she had bitten on a sour lemon? Jayewardene told reporters that an anxious Mrs Gandhi rushed to ask him soon afterwards if he felt her reception was cool or her handshake distant. He cited the incident as another instance of media mischief, but it warned me that Mrs Gandhi never missed a detail.

The burly bearded revolutionary wasn’t beyond the pale for discerning Indian prime ministers. “The first person who came to see me was Prime Minister Nehru,” Castro told Kunwar Natwar Singh. “I was tense. Nehru boosted my morale.

Another sequel. Castro startled everyone at NAM’s previous summit in Havana by declaring that the Soviet Union was non-alignment’s natural ally. It sounded like hailing the wolf as the lamb’s best friend. Even Mrs Gandhi, left-of-centre by her own admission, ‘slightly left of self-interest’ according to Peter Hazelhurst of The Times (London), may have wondered. “We have,” she declared in New Delhi, adapting Lord Palmerston’s famous dictum, “neither natural allies nor natural adversaries. We have tried not to be openly critical [of anyone] or use a strident type of voice.” With American Republicans wooing developing countries that were dissatisfied with the Soviets with economic and technical assistance, Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser asked the USSR’s Khrushchev why Moscow tolerated his non-alignment but refused to accept Tito’s. “Don’t you know why?” the canny Russian replied. “Because if Tito succeeds, he will affect our bloc, but if you succeed, you will affect the other bloc.” Between Khrushchev and Castro—not that they were always the best of friends—they hoped to entice the entire non-aligned group into the Soviet camp in the Cold War that was still raging.

It wasn’t until the economic reforms of PV Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh moved India closer to the US that the Cuba connection came under serious strain. The difficulties created by the American embargo became obvious when Isidoro Malmierca Peoli, Castro’s cultured Latin foreign minister for two decades, who was known and respected here, spent ten days in New Delhi in April 1992 hoping for at least 100,000 tonnes of rice in lieu of sugar and credit. Such bargains had been struck before on the anvil of non-aligned solidarity, always drawing criticism and strictures from the US which accused India of helping its enemies and— rich for a power that pampered the Shah of Iran and Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines—hobnobbing with dictators. Having lately discovered the delights of the free market, India was evasive with the Cubans.

Malmierca’s leftist Indian friends stormed and raged. Indrajit Gupta asked if the American navy would invade or Carla Hills, the US trade representative who was always difficult, impose fresh sanctions. George Fernandes pleaded with trade unionists to donate a kilogramme of rice each and asked the Government to provide free transport regardless of American wrath. As the furore continued, that wise old owl, Narasimha Rao, quietly gave instructions to sell Cuba 10,000 tonnes of non-Basmati rice and the same quantity of wheat with a Rs 10-crore price tag. He knew it would be a notional ‘sale’ like our ‘non-performing assets’. The rice and wheat were despatched and the State Trading Corporation half- heartedly tried to recover the cost. Cuba could not pay and the money was written off two-and-a-half years after Narasimha Rao stepped down. It was a reminder to the US that because of its global image, self-respect and domestic sentiment, India could go only so far and no farther. Nor would that India ever betray an old friend.

Castro visited India twice (1973 and 1983) as Indira Gandhi’s guest. The bear hug in which he famously enveloped his “sister” outside Vigyan Bhavan in 1983 must be one of history’s most dramatic greetings

A grateful Castro called the gift the ‘Bread of India’ because it provided each one of the then 11 million Cubans with a loaf of bread. India also gave $2 million during a catastrophic earthquake. Castro was always appreciative. “The maturity of India [and] its unconditional adherence to the principles which lay at the foundation of the non-aligned movement give us the assurance that under the wise leadership of Indira Gandhi, the non-aligned countries will continue advancing in their inalienable role as a bastion for peace, national independence and development…”

When news of Salvador Allende’s fall reached him in war-torn Vietnam, he promptly flew back via Calcutta where Jyoti Basu and thousands of people (but not the Chief Minister, Siddhartha Shankar Ray) welcomed him at Dum Dum airport. There is some confusion about the date of the Chile coup. Newspaper reports indicate Castro heard the grim news in Hanoi. Curiously, however, Inder Malhotra’s biography of Indira Gandhi claims the bombshell broke during her banquet in New Delhi for the Cuban leader. The banquet was on November 11th, the coup exactly two months earlier. To add to the confusion, Castro himself claimed 12 years later that it was the moment when Mrs Gandhi discovered the sinister Foreign Hand eternally plotting her downfall. “What they have done to Allende, they want to do to me also,” she told him, darkly mentioning domestic enemies “connected with the same foreign forces that acted in Chile, who would like to eliminate me”.

It’s not inappropriate that this particular legend was born in the controversy of conflicting facts and statements. The American ambassador, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, promptly retorted that far from trying to assassinate her, the US had twice given Mrs Gandhi money to fight elections. Whatever the truth, Castro had far greater reason to fear American enmity. “If surviving assassination attempts were an Olympic event, I would win the gold medal,” he joked. We know of Jack Kennedy’s abortive Bay of Pigs invasion. We know of the following year’s Soviet missile crisis that distracted the world’s attention from China’s invasion in the Himalayas. What we know less about is the litany of American interventions ever since the dawn of the 20th century or Franklin D Roosevelt’s warning that it was “incumbent on all civilised and orderly powers to insist on the proper (read US) policing of the world.”

Haiti, Guatemala and the Dominican Republic were bullied into submission. Colombia was split to create Panama so that the US dominated the Canal Zone. Cuba lost 116 sq km of land and water at Guantánamo Bay which it calls ‘usurped territory’ and wants back but which houses America’s infamous high security detention centre. Pope John Paul’s visit provoked an explosion of expectations from those not so mythic forces which Stalin mocked as the Pope’s divisions. “A visit from the Pope is like a visit from Jesus,” Cardinal Jaime Ortega, Primate of Cuba, proclaimed. “Nothing will be the same afterwards.” Barack Obama’s visit began the reconciliation, although, sadly, he failed to carry out his promise to close Guantánamo.

The captains and kings of the Western world have decided to boycott Castro’s funeral. They probably believe it’s posthumous punishment for one of the few Third World leaders who stood up to their might and yet escaped the fate of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi. But is it necessary for India to emulate them? The AK- 47 with which Allende shot himself was a gift from Castro with a golden plate that read, ‘To my good friend Salvador from Fidel, who by different means tries to achieve the same goals.’ India shares those goals with all Afro-Asian countries. Fidel Castro’s funeral will be an occasion to reaffirm those goals and celebrate the non-ideological revolution he called “a struggle to the death between the future and the past.” It’s the Third World’s struggle for survival with dignity.

Also Read Ullekh NP's  Fidel Castro: My Hero in Havana

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