Never say no to India: Fidel Castro power for India-Cuba ties

castro-gandhiNever say no to India. The 87-year-old Fidel Castro, the living legend and the iconic revolutionary, has not been seen in public for the past five months and rarely meets visiting leaders, but he found time to meet Vice-president Hamid Ansari on a blessed, bright day in Havana, signifying his special affection and esteem for India, which he sees as a fellow-traveller and a kindred non-aligned country.

Commandante Castro, a lawyer who scripted a new anthem of defiance and redemption of his country by dislodging the brutal Batista regime in 1959, spent 65 minutes talking to Mr Ansari  at his residence  in Havana October 30 and conveyed his desire to deepen relations with India, a country, which Cuban diplomats say, have a special place in his heart.

The meeting bristled with nostalgia as Castro fondly recalled his visit to India in 1983 for the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) summit and  his meeting with India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in New York way back in 1958. Castro spoke fondly of India, said Mr Ansari after his meeting with the legendary revolutionary. “He remembered India very fondly, very fondly his various visits to India, the various plants and products that he has got from India, the cooperation that he has had with Indian leaders. The meeting was a gesture to India and the value that he and the Cuban system attach to that relationship,” said Mr Ansari.

ansari-castroFor Vice-President Ansari, who was chief of protocol  at the 1983 NAM summit in New Delhi, the meeting with Castro should be a treasured moment and a highlight of his transcontinental voyage.  Speaking to journalists on a special aircraft ferrying him to Peru, Lima and the UK, Ansari, a former diplomat, said he was not sure whether the meeting with Castro will actually take place, adding that a request  was made for the meeting. Conjuring up the mystique and charisma of the man who remains the subject of so much myth-making and revolutionary folklore, Ansari had recalled that Castro was “the star at the NAM summit” and he was specially instructed by the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to take care of his needs. The famous Castro hug for Mrs Gandhi has now become one of the most memorable and well-publicised photographs in India-Cuba relations.

Raising the Bar

ansari-cubaCastro’s meeting with Vice-President Ansari signifies a firm resolve by Cuba to scale up ties with India,  one of Asia’s top economies and a rising world power.  Strangely, despite a special affinity dating back to the heyday of the NAM, Ansari’s is the first ever high-level bilateral visit to Havana from India. India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited Havana in 2006, but that was for the NAM summit.

The India-Cuba relations now seem poised for an upsurge. Ansari held wide-ranging talks with Cuba’s First Vice-President Miguel Diaz-Canel Bermudez, widely speculated to be the next president of the oil-rich Caribbean country. The discussions  covered an entire gamut of bilateral relationship, with special focus on enhancing economic, energy and cultural relations between the two countries.

Building knowledge and culture bridge

castro-vajpayee1Cultural diplomacy has found a new resonance as the two sides signed a pact on enhancing cooperation in broadcasting between India’s state broadcaster Prasar Bharati and Cuban Radio and Television Institute (ICRT).  The pact promises to be an important step in transforming mutual public perception of India and Cuba among people in these countries and includes exchange of programmes in the field of culture, education, science, entertainment, sports and news.

Indian culture has a special fascination for the Cuban people, known for their joie de vivre, special talent for sports and love of dancing and singing. This special cultural connectivity was in full flow at the performance of a fusion of Indian classical dance forms in Havana in the evening (October 28). It may sound unbelievable, but over 5000 Cubans thronged to watch the performance  at Mella Theatre, part of the Festival of India which was inaugurated October 29 by the vice-president.  The show was greeted with thunderous applause that resonated in the balmy air of Havana.

The cultural affinity is not just feel-good talk; it’s for real. Yoga is not only widely practiced by Cubans, but forms part of the health curriculum in schools. Havana is one of the few cities sports a bust of Mahatma Gandhi and sage-poet Rabindranath Tagore. The House of Casa (Casa de Asia) in Havana has found a loyal following among Cubans who never miss, film shows and talks on India.

Moving beyond Castro, Cigars and Carnival

castro-cigarWhile Cubans know quite a bit about the Indian culture, unfortunately the knowledge of Cuba, known mostly for Castro, Cigars and Carnival,  is limited in India. Not many Indians know that Cuban coaches have helped  Indian boxers to win medals in a host of international competitions, including Olympics. And the success story of Cuba’s  health sector, which boasts of some of the finest doctors in the world, is dimly understood. In the days to come, one can only hope that there will be enhanced mutual understanding as it is only when people know more about each other, the diplomatic relations acquire a public constituency. The visit by India’s vice-president should be followed by more of such two-way visits to modernize India’s relations with Cuba in syn with realities of the 21st century.



Author Profile

Manish Chand
Manish Chand
Manish Chand is Founder-CEO and Editor-in-Chief of India Writes Network ( and India and World, a pioneering magazine focused on international affairs. He is CEO/Director of TGII Media Private Limited, an India-based media, publishing, research and consultancy company.