Saeed Naqvi interviewing Castro in Havana for Doordarshan.
AN itinerant journalist does in the course of his wanderings pick up an icon or two whom he values above others. Had I been old enough to have met Mahatma Gandhi or Jawaharlal Nehru, they too would be at the top of the list.
The interviews at the head of the list I have valued most would be Nelson Mandela and Fidel Castro. The Cuban leader calling it curtains on February 19 after 50 years at the helm has triggered off nostalgia about both these extraordinary men I had met within a year of each other.
Within days of my request for an interview with Castro in Cuba being granted, my TV crew and I were in Havana. The reception at the airport was businesslike except that a somewhat humourless minder, Ramirez, was planted on us for the duration of the stay. All socialist societies had developed a culture: ask visiting journalists to cool their heels until at an unearthly hour, sometimes past midnight, a car escorted by security men would whisk you away to a mysterious destination. In Castro’s case this was a brick-lined enclosure camouflaged with tropical plants. There was a bit of suspense reaching him.
There was no such cat-and-mouse in Mandela’s case. The day he came out of Victor Voerster prison outside Cape Town, a tightly held secret among African National Congress (ANC) volunteers was that he would spend the first night at Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s house.
Resourcefulness in journalism is to find connections at the right time. Well, the South African struggle was spearheaded by Gandhi, then by remarkable leaders such as Yusuf Dadoo whom Mandela considered their Guru. One of the remarkable friends of Mandela was Yusuf Cachalia (his father, Mohammad Cachalia, was one of Gandhi’s companions in Durban), who admired Urdu poetry, a fact that drew him to me. It was Yusuf Bhai’s exertions on my behalf that brought down all barriers and I was the first to interview Mandela. He was so happy after his first meal outside prison, which, at his own request, was curry and rice.
The reason why Mandela, in my view, ranks with the prophets is the total absence of rancour and bitterness against the “Whites” in whose prison he was for 27 years. Icons are seldom deferential to other icons. But Mandela was respectful towards Castro who he thought had fought apartheid from the jungles of Angola. Mengistu Haile Mariam in Ethiopia may not have been God’s gift to good governance, but Castro did help him resist Reagan’s counter-offensive. There was hardly any national liberation war in which Castro did not participate with men, material and training. Mandela was respectful of all this.
Of course, there were sharp differences in the styles of the two. Mandela in his conversation was crisp, clear-cut and brief.
An interview with Castro was a memorable experience on an epic scale. First, the build-up, the long wait in Havana, a fact the Information Ministry utilised, rather imaginatively, to show us the extraordinary advances Cuba had made in medicare. All this despite the United States’ embargo. It is generally accepted that medicare in Cuba is better than in the U.S.
Mandela’s charisma derived from the sacrifices he had made for freedom. Castro’s romance was built to a large extent around the David and Goliath image, the fact that he had created an efficient socialist society despite being constantly menaced by the U.S.
Every sly trick was tried to assassinate him. Tricks to singe his beard or cause his hair to fall by remote spraying. Clearly the plot was inspired by the Samson myth – that the power of Castro’s sex appeal, his charisma, rested on his bushy beard.
After a week’s waiting, we were told that our interview with Castro, for Doordarshan, had been fixed. At about 9 o’clock we were escorted into an exposed brick courtyard.
September 17, 1973, New Delhi: Prime Minister Indira Gandhi welcomes Castro at the airport when the Cuban Prime Minister made a stop-over.
After about two hours of waiting, the big, burly figure of Castro appeared in the distant door wearing his traditional fatigues. He was larger than life in every sense of the term.
He rested his arm on my shoulder and navigated me into the nearby lounge. He then poured two stiff brandies. “I thought brandy could be accompanied by a good Cuban cigar,” I said.
His interpreter explained that Fidel does not smoke cigars anymore. This came as a huge surprise. The posters I had seen of Che Guevera holding a pipe and Fidel twirling a cigar were from the 1960s. Mind you, this informal conversation was to continue for two hours.
Somewhere, inadvertently, cigars had entered the conversation. I told Fidel the difficulty I had had buying non-export-quality cigars. He could not understand what I was saying. He insisted I tell him my cigar story at the end of the interview.
By now Castro was on his fourth brandy. After initial courtesies, he began to talk about Rajiv Gandhi “whose mother was my friend”. Then, at about 2 a.m., the formal interview began. He remembered how he had scandalised the world media at the 1983 NAM (Non-Aligned Movement) summit in New Delhi by holding Indira Gandhi in a warm embrace at the moment of handing over the Chairmanship of NAM. “She blushed,” he said. “There are cultural differences.” After a pause. “In fact, it was the media which made a story out of it. If you ask me she was quite at ease.”
The basic anxiety Castro nurtured, which came across throughout the conversation, was the possible liquidation of the Soviet Union. He said the postcolonial wars of national liberation, in which Cuba participated by placing troops on the ground in Angola and Ethiopia, would become a thing of the past without the support of the Soviet Union. “Independence would remain a half-baked bread,” he said.
He had been such a thorn in the side of the U.S., but why had the U.S. not invaded Cuba and snuffed out Castro’s regime? I asked. He said, “You should ask the CIA [Central Intelligence Agency].” I then advanced my outlandish theory. “You are secure because of the Cuban Missile Crisis,” I said provocatively. There was no dramatic reaction from him.
I persisted. “When [Nikita] Khruschev agreed to remove the missiles, he extracted from the Americans a condition. “The U.S. would not bomb Cuba.”
An amused expression crossed his face. But he said nothing. He kept on one theme: “Without a powerful socialist bloc supported by the Soviet Union, postcolonial states would be insecure.”
May 23, 1963, Moscow: Castro, on an official visit to the Soviet Union, with Premier Nikita Khruschev at a farewell meeting where more than 125,000 people had gathered.
He was extremely proud of the various poets and writers who counted him among their friend. “Had I been a capitalist leader I would have died discussing buying and selling of commodities,” he said.
His eyes lit up talking of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, among others whom he counted as his closest friends.
He gesticulated with both his arms when he spoke. “We are a very small country but we have not flinched from our duty of helping national liberation wars wherever possible,” he said. He then paused, stiffened the line of his mouth and fixed his gaze on me. “Do you think India has done its bit as a non-aligned country, or played a leadership role even outside NAM?” He said, almost to himself, “No.”
Yes, that cigar story. Since export-quality cigars were available only at outgoing duty-free shops, surely we could buy cigars ordinary Cubans smoke. I asked friends at the Indian Embassy to buy me 200 cigars meant for local Cubans. But Ramirez said I would not be allowed to carry these cigars out. Castro heard me but said nothing. The day I left there was a bundle of 500 non-export-quality cigars with compliments of “Fidel”. I have always nursed a sense that I coaxed that gift out of Castro.
Saeed Naqvi is a senior journalist and a Distinguished Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.
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