Monday, September 13, 2010

Castro now ‘a soldier in the battle of ideas’

New Straits Times


THE green military overall is back. A voice mellowed by age and speeches shorter than those that took hours before still warn the world of the threat of nuclear war.

Cuban leader Fidel Castro recently spoke from the same steps of the University of Havana where, 61 years ago, he stirred fellow students to political action, beginning a revolution that eventually put him in power.

Thousands listened to him, shouting “Fidel, Fidel, Fidel”.

Having suffered international sanctions, Fidel feels for Iran, the current target. He lambasted the United States for creating a “system that threatens the survival of humanity”.

He does not merely harangue.

“In this, as in many struggles in the past, it is possible to be victorious,” he says.

His renewed public presence after four years of health-imposed isolation has raised questions about whether he can resume a larger role in running Cuba, now officially led by his younger brother, President Raul Castro. It seems unlikely.

Castro, like Nelson Mandela, belongs to that rare breed of men who have lived long to see the success of their revolutions.

The abiding image I have of Castro is of shaking hands with him when he visited India in 1973.

He did not drive away with his hosts but broke the protocol to shake hands with the officials, then the security personnel and finally the media and the staff at the airport.

Having just alighted from the aircraft, he did not display his famous Havana cigar. Tall and big, he strode leisurely towards people, who were naturally taken by surprise.

His handshake was warm; his palm, double the size of anyone else’s. His gaze was benign and matched a warm smile. It was a momentary but unforgettable encounter.

A decade later, he was back as chairman of the Non-Aligned Movement. New Delhi was hosting the 7th NAM Summit. Amid thunderous applause, he passed on the mantle to then premier Indira Gandhi.

He handed over the ceremonial hammer. Then, the typical Latino hugged her. The crew handling the TV cameras were confused about whether they should focus on the two leaders. This was understandable in that relatively conservative era. Playing safe, they panned on the NAM logo.

Save those at Vigyan Bhavan, the summit venue, the world missed a rare moment.

By any yardstick, Castro remains one of the most remarkable personalities of the last century. Having spent a decade of the present one, he is back to serve “as a soldier in the battle of ideas”.

The revolution he brought about on New Year’s Day in 1959 electrified people everywhere, for two reasons. In the first place, he had toppled the detested dictatorial regime of Fulgencio Batista.

In the second, he promised Cubans leadership that was young and idealistic. At that early stage, Castro had no way of foreseeing the long, hard struggle he would be put through.

With considerable credit to himself and his band of revolutionaries, he swiftly crushed his US-backed adversaries at the Bay of Pigs in 1961. The next year, he survived the fierce row over the deployment of Soviet missiles.

Castro supported guerilla groups in Latin America and sent more than 350,000 Cuban troops to fight in Angola, where they defeated South African forces, leading to the independence of Namibia and hastening the end of apartheid.

Cubans fought in Vietnam and helped turn the tide against the US.

Historians will have to take note of his having survived a hostile campaign by a dozen US presidents and attempts on his life, some known, some still secret, each one bizarre. They were succinctly detailed by a committee headed by US Senator Frank Church.

That a man heading a tiny impoverished nation could be pursued so vehemently by the world’s most powerful nation, because Cuba happens to be at its doorstep, is a grim testimony of the Cold War era that persists to this day in the form of economic sanctions.

“I’m really happy to reach 80. I never expected it, not least having a neighbour — the greatest power in the world — trying to kill me every day,” he said on July 21, 2006 at a summit of South American presidents in Argentina, where crowds greeted him like a rock star.

Resilience has been Castro’s forte. That has underscored the global role, be it in NAM or in assisting liberation movements in Africa, he has played in his time.

Cuba would fail the Western test of democracy and economic progress. But looked upon as a Third World nation, its people have done fairly well. It has played a large role in comparison to its size. And it has survived the demise of the Soviet Union on which it depended heavily.

A Marxist, Castro, even while depending upon the Soviet Union, chose to stay non-aligned, being influenced by Jawaharlal Nehru, Gamal Abdel Nasser and Sukarno. In NAM, he searched for a way to survive with dignity in a polarised, partisan world.

Castro sought to transform Cuba into an egalitarian society and achieved health and literacy levels on a par with industrialised nations. Cuba has well-developed pharmaceutical and information technology industries and a vibrant cinema.

Although Castro has been a friend of India, Indians have not adequately responded, ostensibly for fear of annoying the US. However, despite heavy pressures of time and work, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was in Havana to attend the NAM summit.

Castro has predictably reacted with hostility to the West’s calls that the “change” paved by his retirement should be towards democracy. But in recent years he has slowly prepared his people for a measure of liberalism. Brother Raul is carrying the task forward.

His son, Fidel Felix Castro Diaz-Balart, a nuclear energy expert, visited India as minister for science in 2003. While not discussing politics, he gave me enough indications of Cuba’s tryst with the future that would eventually allow for ending its isolation.

Fidel is still around. Judgment over his contribution to Cuba and to the world can wait.

He made history. Others will find it hard to beat.

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