I remember that as a very young school boy hearing about Fidel Castro in a party in my diplomat-father’s house in New York in late 1959 after the Cuban revolution. As a special favour I was allowed to stay up as the adults engaged in an animated discussion. One spoke to my father in fluent Spanish. Later, I was told he was a revolutionary close to Fidel and who had to leave New York abruptly shortly thereafter. The group including Latin Americans, Africans, Europeans and Asians were not all diplomats but included journalists, academics and even a big businessman. There I heard that the US was thinking of suppressing the Cuban revolution, which had overthrown the Mafia- and US-backed Batista dictatorship.
Fidel had a very special relation with India. Fidel was a star of the Non Aligned Movement--as Vice President Hamid Ansari said in a meeting with him just a few months ago. He was also a great admirer of Nehru and had a friendship with Indira Gandhi, and this led to a warm friendship between the people of India and Cuba.
In April this year Fidel Castro gave a rare speech in the Communist Party Congress. He reiterated that the communist concepts were still valid and that the Cuban people “will be victorious”. He went on to say “I’ll soon be 90, something I’d never imagined.” He added “Soon I’ll be like all the others to all our turn must come.” Even months earlier a frail Fidel said that he would die soon. The important thing that he Raoul and his slain comrade Che believed in was that the Cuban revolution should support the principles of peace, freedom, justice and equality not only in Cuba but everywhere else.
In the initial years Fidel and his colleagues concentrated on the security of Cuba and the consolidation of the Communist regime. This turned out to be extremely important. President Kennedy’s historian has written that Kennedy’s choices were, first preference would be a democratic regime, but if that was not possible, the second preference would be a dictatorial Batista regime and the third last choice would be a Castro regime. In 1961, the CIA-sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion by Cuban exiles had to be fought off by the Cuban government. This led to the Soviet Union deploying nuclear missiles to protect Cuba against the US government. This sparked the Cuban missile crisis. After that Cuba was virtually cordoned off and US citizens were stopped from visiting Cuba. Unilateral sanctions were imposed, most of which have been removed relatively recently.
Despite the extreme hardships Fidel, Raoul and in the initial period Che advocated Cuban support to other freedom struggles. While Che believed that a small group of committed revolutionaries could light the flame of revolution, most Cuban comrades in leadership positions did not agree. Some years later Che was captured by US-backed military troops and was executed on the spot. However Cuban troops did support freedom struggles in countries as diverse as Angola and Eritrea. This is often not noted or remembered. For a small country under the shadow and threat of the US, with its Guantanamo Bay occupied by the US as a prison for dangerous prisoners, the support that the Cuban Government led for long by Fidel and more recently by Raoul is simply amazing.
Ironically, the famous Cuban cigars that are cigar smokers delight throughout the world, was firmly stopped by his doctors for Fidel who then only chewed the cigar, and that also was banned later. Cuban rum however is very popular but a rare commodity.
All revolutions have to change with the times. This was an issue debated by communists in Cuba and all over the world in which liberals also intervened. This led to a series of economic, political and social reforms in the latter period of Fidel’s life, taken further by Raoul.
We learnt a lot from the Cubans and even senior Indian Leftists like EMS Namboodripad, B T Ranadive, Inderjit Gupta, Jyoti Basu and A B Bardhan to name just a few were strongly influenced by the Cuban revolution. But the admirers of the Cuban revolution included radicals, left liberals and liberals throughout the world. There is a saying that old soldiers never die they only fade away. The flame of the Cuban revolution will never allow its heroes to fade away.
(Kamal Mitra Chenoy is professor of politics, School of International Studies, JNU and member of the CPI)