Mainstream, VOL LIV No 50 New Delhi December 3, 2016
In Memory of Fidel Castro
Monday 5 December 2016, by
Fidel Castro, the great Cuban revolutionary and the icon of those who have over the last half-a-century struggled for national liberation, freedom from colonial and capitalistic exploitation, and the establishment of a just and equitable world order, passed away on November 25, 2016 in Havana at the age of 90. At the time of his death, he had become outdated just as many of the platforms he had chosen for his role in the world, that is, Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), Group of 77 (G-77), the Third World and the United Nations had become outdated or unrecognisably enfeebled. However, during the recent relatively inactive phase of his life he remained a symbol of the aspirations and strivings of a vast majority of the countries of the world. He strode like a colossus in the global arena during the best part of the second half of the 20th century.
He was the only leader in the post-Second World War period who was vilified among a section of his own people and in countries outside Cuba, but adored and adulated in the rest of the world in much larger measure. He was constrained and crippled in the fulfilment of some of his ambitions by a group of countries led by the United States. At the same time, he was respected and hero-worshipped in almost all other countries and among vastly wider sections of the world population. Coming from a tiny Caribbean country, he was better known among the common people the world over, particularly in the Third World, than most of the other great leaders of his era.
In spite of the continuing struggle for his country’s survival against the embargo and isolation imposed by the neighbouring imperia-list power, what Fidel achieved for Cuba during his life-time has remained unachieved in the rest of the Third World. He established an educational system in his country of which there is no parallel in any developing country and in a number of developed countries. The quality health system under his leadership, accessible to every Cuban virtually without charge, has no match even in developed countries. He failed in his plan to industrialise Cuba, but that was in large part due to the trade embargo slapped and maintained by the United States. For, a small country like Cuba cannot set up viable industries without being a part of the regional and global economic system, which was persistently denied to Cuba. In spite of these limitations, during my several visits to Cuba, I saw factories manufacturing goods of common consumption like drinks, processed food, clothes etc. I still wear a couple of T-shirts purchased in Havana which were at that time designed and manufactured, out of imported cloth material, by the famous French fashion house, Pierre Cardin.
He did everything within the severe and comprehensive limitations imposed on him to make his fellow countrymen and women safe and comfortable. That is why in spite of the initial rumblings against his dictatorial ways and suppression of dissent by brutal force, he enjoyed almost complete support of the Cuban population in his defiance of the United States, defence of the Cuban socialist system and national development task. He identified himself with his people, consistently tried to strike a cord with them, walking out to mix with them and through his long rambling addresses to the nation. It is, therefore, not surprising that in Cuba he was universally addressed by his first name Fidel—an indication of the deep affection in which he was held by his people and the social equality he succeeded in ushering in Cuba.
Under Fidel’s leadership, Cuba emerged as a great exponent of all that the Third World stood for, that is, anti-colonialism, anti-imperialism, anti-racism, internationalism, disarmament and development. He came to symbolise the dreams of the large section of humanity which stood and fought for these causes. There is hardly an example in recent history of a nation punching so unimaginably above its weight.
One of the greatest legacies of Fidel was the leadership that he left behind him, both at the political and administrative levels. I have found Cuban politicians and diplomats among the most skilled, astute and far-sighted negotiators in the world. They admirably combine their quest of national interest with concern for the world order and rule of international law.
Given its overwhelming reliance on the Soviet Union for its survival, Cuba’s foreign policy remained tilted during the Fidel era towards the Soviet Union and socialist outlook of the world. Like the Soviet Union itself before Gorbachev, Cuba under Fidel’s leadership overstretched the reach of its foreign policy. It sent troops to Angola, Mozambique and Ethiopia to keep the socialist regimes in these countries in power. It did so because of its belief that justice was on its side and that it had the support of the peoples of these countries. Cuba also believed that if the pro-imperialist capitalist forces would not have been resisted, it would have led to the creation and perpetuation of foreign-dominated exploitative regimes in these countries. It should also not be forgotten that apart from sending troops, Fidel sent in large numbers doctors, educators, technical experts and social workers not only to the countries where Cuban troops were fighting but also to many other developing countries. They brought succour and relief to the suffering people there and trained the locals for self-reliance and self-governance.
In one of the greatest acts of poetic justice in recent history, a few months before Fidel departed from this world, President Obama removed restrictions on travel between Cuba and the United States, restored the diplomatic relations between the two countries and, in a historic gesture, paid a Presidential visit to Cuba. It was a vindication of Cuba’s assertion of national sovereignty and its right to have
a socio-economic system of its choice and a recognition of the flawed nature of the US policy towards Cuba. In this connection, President Obama’s remark in a message to Cuba after Fidel’s death is really remarkable. The President said: “History will recall and judge the enormous impact of this singular figure on the people and the world around him.” If this is not a recognition by no less a person than the US President, of the greatness of Fidel, whom till recently the United States wanted to be liquidated at any cost and by any means, what else can it be?
It is a tribute to Fidel’s leadership that while politically remaining on the Soviet side, Cuba was one of the most influential and respected leaders among the nonaligned countries almost on par with much bigger countries like India, Egypt, Yugoslavia and Indonesia which pioneered the nonaligned movement. I found the Cubans never missing an opportunity of using the narrowest of space available to them for manoeuvring in foreign policy, for promoting the wider causes of humanity.
Under Fidel’s leadership Cuba never became an outcaste or a pariah in Latin America. Even the pro-US and pro-capitalist regimes of Latin America, which constituted a clear majority, held him in high esteem and saw their own national self-respect, dignity and autonomy enhanced by Fidel’s successful resistance of the US pressure. They chose to work together with Fidel and forge alliances with his cooperation in defiance of the US and for the furtherance of their shared interest, particularly in such matters as commodities, sovereignty over natural resources and regional cooperation. One of the most constructive contributions to the debate on commodities in the UN forum was made by Cuba. It is significant to underline in this context that the Cuban delegation to the historic First UNCTAD was led by Che Guevara who had at that time become a Cuban citizen and was a towering figure in the government under Fidel Castro.
I cannot claim to have personally known Fidel or of having come close to him, but I indeed feel blessed to have been born, lived and pursued my vocation of diplomacy during the era coinciding with Fidel’s life. I met him twice in the second half of the 1970s when I accompanied my Foreign Minister in his calls on him. None of these two events was merely a courtesy call. Fidel took advantage of the opportunity to expound his views on world affairs and the plight of the developing countries and advanced compelling arguments for their joint effort to bring about a change in the situation. Each time on these occasions, I found myself face to face with not only the Cuban President, but a world leader of great stature.
I found him a genuine friend of India, entertaining legitimate expectations of cooperation with our country mainly in the economic and technological field, but somewhat disillusioned because of our not being sufficiently forthcoming in our response and because of our propensity always to try to hold a balance in pursuit of what we perceived to be a policy of genuine non-alignment. Those days, preventing Cuba from tilting the Non-Aligned Movement towards the Soviet direction was regarded as an important part of our diplomacy. At times, we went too far in this direction without being fair to Cuba’s position and at the cost of our own enlightened self-interest.
I saw Fidel at the prime of his authority nationally and prestige internationally as the Chairman of the Non-Aligned Summit in Havana in 1979. I was present in the Conference Hall when he delivered his inaugural address. It was a momentous moment for everyone present—seeing in flesh and blood their icon. One of our major concerns at the Summit was to get the oil producing and exporting countries (OPEC) committed to a dual pricing system for oil. In an expert level meeting in Georgetown preceding the Havana Summit, I was able to negotiate a mutually agreed formulation. As it happened, the negotiation was reopened at the Summit and this became one of the issues which held up the conclusion of the Conference. In our endeavour to find a solution satisfactory to us, Cuba extended its full support without, however, rocking the boat. Obviously, as a host country, their primary objective was to get a Havana Declaration and Plan of Action unanimously agreed and they eminently succeeded in this endeavour even though it involved their walking at the razor’s edge in the negotiations on the oil pricing issue and other fronts.
At the time when the nuclear arms race had acquired ominous proportions and the threat of a nuclear winter seemed to be at our doorstep, an initiative was taken to convene in Havana a special Non-Aligned Conference on Disarmament. I had the privilege of steering the negotiations on the document that emerged from this Conference. I once again had the chance of standing very close to Fidel when he inaugurated the Conference. We came out with one of the best documents on nuclear disarmament ever adopted in a large international gathering like NAM. The success was in no small measure due to the highly positive, balanced and constructive attitude of the Cubans.
And finally, I had the privilege of seeing from a distance this giant among the world leaders when he came to Delhi to hand over the Chairmanship of the Non-Aligned Movement to Smt. Indira Gandhi at the NAM Summit in 1983.
I bow my head in gratefulness for all that Fidel has done for Cuba, developing countries and the world.
A former Foreign Secretary, Prof Muchkund Dubey is currently the President, Council for Social Development, New Delhi.