For an older generation of Indians, indeed South Asians, the image of Fidel Castro invokes a sense of nostalgia of a bygone era, filled with fiery revolutionaries who hoped to change the world. Castro was one of the few who succeeded. He not only overthrew the US-backed Fulgencio Batista regime, but was also able to cock-a-snook at the world’s only superpower and survive years of crippling economic sanctions.
Much of the admiration for Castro, who passed away at the age of 90 on Friday, revolved around his defiance of the US. In his early years, he survived several attempts by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to assassinate him and overthrow his regime with the help of Cuban exiles. The failure of CIA's attempts led to the myth that has grown around Castro.
Liberals were delighted with his charisma. An abiding memory of Castro is that of him embracing former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi with a warm hug, when he passed on the baton of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) Chair to India during the Delhi Summit in 1983. That picture was on the front pages of all Indian newspapers the following day.
"Today, while handing over, after more than three years, the chairmanship of the Non-Aligned Movement to our admired Indira Gandhi and to India, that she in her historic right represents, we can affirm that we have a movement whose unity was not weakened, whose vigour has grown, whose independence has been withheld despite all the challenges it faced," Castro had said at that time.
Castro himself was fascinated by India and was a great admirer of Jawaharlal Nehru. During a 1958 visit to the UN General Assembly, when American hoteliers refused to entertain the Cuban revolutionary in any of New York’s premier hotels, he was invited by a hotelier in Harlem to stay in The Theresa. Nehru, who was also in New York for the Assembly, went all the way to Harlem to call on Castro.
Former Congress leader Natwar Singh quoted Castro recalling Nehru’s gesture: "The first person who came to see me was Prime Minister Nehru. I can never forget his magnificent gesture. I was 34 years of age, not widely known. I was tense. Nehru boosted my morale. My tension disappeared."
This friendship continued and passed on to Indira Gandhi. Rajiv Gandhi too carried on the family friendship and visited Cuba within a year of becoming the prime minister.
1983 :: Fidel Castro Hugs Indira Gandhi At The Moment of Handing Over of The Chairman's Gavel During NAM Summit pic.twitter.com/TDF9nXCPxp
— indianhistorypics (@IndiaHistorypic) November 26, 2016
Soon after meeting Nehru in New York, he sent Argentine Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara to India in 1959 to meet Nehru and other leaders. A year later, in 1960, India opened its embassy in Havana. Former Ambassador to Cuba, Deepak Bhojwani, who has been posted there since 2011, said that Castro continued to have a soft spot for India. Though by this time, Castro had handed over power to his brother Raul. His fading health had forced him to remain out of the public eye, although he continued to be an important figure in Cuba.
"The older generation loved Castro, except for those who supported the old regime. But the vast majority of Cubans, including the young, continue to regard Castro as a charismatic revolutionary hero. Despite the pain caused by the US sanctions on the economy, Castro’s gutsy fight against its superpower neighbour is still admired by all citizens," said Bhojwani. The ambassador recalls that Castro in his earlier years had great admiration for India, for its role in NAM.
"He felt that though India was not part of the Communist Bloc, it was an important world power which could not be bullied by the Western world. He felt India stood apart from others with its independent foreign policy," Bhojwani added.
The Ambassador, however, added that Castro was rather disappointed with New Delhi for conducting nuclear tests. Castro, in his later years, became vehemently anti-nuclear and felt that the world would become a dangerous place with the proliferation of nuclear weapons. By this time, India had also changed much of its earlier non-aligned policy. "Little is known of what he felt about India’s policies now, but his regard for India remained," said Bhojwani.
Adding to this was his charismatic personality, his striking looks and the impact he made in the camouflage uniform and the beard he sported. The glamorous world of Hollywood was also not impervious to his charms, despite the fact that successive American governments saw the Cuban as Moscow’s plant in the region.
Right from the glamorous actress Gina Lollobrigida in the late 1960s, who photographed and interviewed the Communist leader and made headlines with her laudatory comments about Castro, liberal Hollywood has continued to be fascinated by the guerrilla leader.