India and Cuba are 14,000 kilometres apart. But for the most part of their bilateral ties, that distance was easily overcome, mostly because of one leader who evoked such awe in India: Fidel Castro.
Both the ruling Congress and the Left parties supported Castro, who for many embodied the fight against the supremacy and interference of the United States in all possible ways.
There are many sepia-tinted images that define the enduring charm Castro evoked in India. As vice-president Hamid Ansari once put it - Castro was the star of 1983 summit of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). Ansari, a former career diplomat was then serving as the chief of protocol. The then prime minister Indira Gandhi instructed him to give special attention to the Cuban leader. Cuba was the outgoing chair of NAM.
The historic moment of handing over of the chairman’s gavel by Castro to Gandhi turned out to be an interesting spectacle. Castro proceeded to give her a bear hug after giving her the gavel and a surprised Gandhi quickly moved away for some seconds. He seemed surprised for a moment too, but loud applause from the audience greeted the moment.
The 1983 NAM summit had a mild criticism for the Soviet Union, but Castro didn’t oppose it contrary to what many would have thought.
The most interesting aspect of the meet perhaps was how Castro managed to pacify Palestine leader Yasser Arafat. Arafat was miffed at being given the speaking slot after the Jordanian delegation and threatened to leave the summit without speaking. It was at Castro’s persuasion that Arafat stayed back.
One reason Castro would never have forgotten India was the rare gesture by first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru. In September 1960, Castro was a pariah for most when he went to attend the United Nations general assembly meeting in New York. But Nehru was one of the first visitors to the hotel where a 34-year-old Castro was put up.
Veteran diplomats say some of the meetings between Castro and Indian prime ministers were as long as his speeches, very very long. Don’t forget, Rajiv Gandhi had a six-hour meeting in Havana with president Castro in 1988.
Veteran Marxist leader Jyoti Basu visited Havana in September 1993, exactly 20 years after Castro’s visit to Calcutta, to convey his support to the Cuban Revolution. Basu, who was accompanied by current CPM general secretary Sitaram Yechury, met Castro for two hours.
“Socialism or Death,” is the battle cry, he had told Basu, while asking detailed questions about India. Some specific questions even baffled Yechury about his understanding about India.
Castro appeared unexpectedly at the guest house to see Basu off.
Basu later wrote “I was pleasantly surprised the next day when Castro made his way to our guest house unannounced and himself took us to the airport in a farewell gesture. I shall never forget this.”