50 years of friendship

Published : Apr 23, 2010 00:00 IST

Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru visiting Fidel Castro at Theresa Hotel in New York in September 1960 when both the leaders were in the United States to attend the U.N. General Assembly.-PRENSA LATINA

Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru visiting Fidel Castro at Theresa Hotel in New York in September 1960 when both the leaders were in the United States to attend the U.N. General Assembly.-PRENSA LATINA

Fifty years is not a long period in the history of bilateral relations between nations, but in the case of India-Cuba ties, many historical landmarks have been established.

While recounting the closeness of these bonds, we inevitably have to go to the origins of that history. A revolution had taken place on a small island in the Caribbean and its bearded rebel leaders had already established a footprint in the history of Latin America.

The Cuban leaders knew from the beginning that a new world was in the making, where developing nations had to play a more significant role: it was the dawn of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), following the Bandung Conference in 1955. Therefore, Che Guevara was sent on a mission to explore like-minded nations that had indicated they would follow an independent foreign policy. On that mission he reached New Delhi in July 1959.

Che recounted: Nehru received us with the amiable familiarity of a grandfather but with a noble interest in the pains and struggles of the Cuban people, giving us extraordinarily valuable suggestions and assurances of unconditional sympathy towards our cause.

Che was clear of the need to strengthen economic ties and would ask Nehru to open an embassy in Cuba, because experience shows us that two countries in their process of industrialisation can go on increasing, while they industrialise, the exchange of their manufactured goods.

Che was also a man of great vision and was able to foresee a great leader in Indira Gandhi when she was still quite young for Asian standards and so he commented: It is interesting to note that in this country of contrastswomen occupy a preponderant role in social relations and even in politics. The graceful and sweet Indian woman occupies positions such as those of the Congress president and Vice-Minister of External Affairs, to cite just a few examples....

A few months after that visit, in January 1960, India opened its mission in Cuba, and a new history in bilateral ties started.

It would take only a few months for Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Prime Minister (later President) Fidel Castro to meet personally, on a particularly historic occasion. Fidel had been denied the possibility of staying in five-star hotels in New York when he attended the United Nations General Assembly and he had already informed the Secretary-General that he would put up a tent on the premises of the U.N. building when the owner of Theresa Hotel located in black Harlem came and invited him and his delegation to stay there, which Fidel immediately accepted. Then, important dignitaries paid him courtesy calls there, establishing a new history for the hotel.

He confessed years later to former Minister of External Affairs K. Natwar Singh: 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.

The friendship that was first established with Nehru was later on developed with his daughter, Indira Gandhi, for whom the Cubans, particularly Fidel, had great affection. Whenever this bond of friendship is highlighted, the unforgettable image that comes to everybodys mind is that of Fidel embracing Indira Gandhi while handing over the NAM chairmanship to her in 1983.

He clearly indicated his affection when he said: 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.

He then concluded: The maturity of India, its unconditional adherence to the principles which lay at the foundation of the Non-Aligned Movement give us the assurances that under the wise leadership of Indira Gandhi, the non-aligned countries will continue advancing in their inalienable role as a bastion for peace, national independence and development

Fidel and Indira Gandhi had met on several occasions in the past. In September 1973, she hosted a dinner for Fidel in Delhi when he was on his way to Vietnam. She spoke on that occasion of the heroic leadership of the Cuban revolution by him and said his interest in the cause of coloured people all over the world had made the Cuban Premier a legend and captured the imagination of idealistic people, both young and old, all over the world.

Fidel expressed this mutual affection and admiration after the tragic death of Indira Gandhi when he said: We saw her disappear amidst flames, while her people, her descendants, and statesmen from all over the world surrounded the funeral pyre in respectful silence. And we recalled the august calmness with which, years earlier, she had indicated that one day she also would, with resignation, give up her life in a holocaust for the unity of her nation. Those unforgettable words are inscribed as the last homage to Indira Gandhi in her Museum.

Another landmark of those friendly ties happened in August 1985, when Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, before one year had passed since his assuming power, visited Cuba accompanied by Sonia Gandhi and held extensive discussions with Fidel Castro, who was so gladly impressed that he organised a farewell for Rajiv Gandhi by half a million people until he reached the plane. The admiration and mutual fondness was also reflected by the fact that Rajiv Gandhi wrote a very warm letter of appreciation to Fidel and the Cuban people from the plane after it took off.

Again, another non-aligned summit took one statesman to the other nation. This time it was Prime Minister Manmohan Singh who attended the XIV NAM Summit in Havana. Although Fidel was recovering from a difficult surgery and could not attend the proceedings, he did have time for India, and as Manmohan Singh later said: I had gone there only to greet him, but he engaged me in intense discussion. We covered a whole range of issues, including the future of the international financial system, the future role of NAM, Indias development prospects and how we are dealing with our population, food and energy problems. He recalled his affection for Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi. He also talked about what Cuba has done to promote human development and education.

I will always remember this meeting, Manmohan Singh added. I felt I was in the presence of one of the greatest men of our times. After 40 minutes of discussions, Fidel requested him to have a photograph taken, so that one billion people would see them together.

In multilateral fora, India and Cuba have been stalwarts of the Third World and have played leading roles in NAM, a vision that is still nurtured by both nations. Cuba was one of the first countries to extend open support to the right of India to be a permanent member of the Security Council, which was announced by Fidel Castro at the Earth Summit of 1992.

Our political ties have been based on commonly held viewpoints. We share the idea of a peaceful world benefiting all people. Both countries want to preserve the environment from further degradation. Both countries want the South to have a united front to face up to the increasingly protected markets of the North so that the countries of the South have access to technologies and international financial flows.

Cuba shares Indias views on multilateralism, democratising the U.N. and the expansion and reform of the Security Council. In most of the fora, both nations share the same platform as groups of like-minded countries and both have supported each others candidature to various U.N. bodies.

We will always be grateful to India for its consistent support to Cuba against Unites States-supported resolutions at the former Human Rights Commission in Geneva, as well as its principled stand in favour of the U.N. General Assembly resolutions calling for the lifting of U.S. sanctions against Cuba.

Both countries maintain that their friendship will stand any challenge regardless of changing circumstances in the present world.

But in spite of the excellent bilateral political relations and the existence of the potential and desire to increase bilateral trade, the volume of India-Cuba trade has remained low. In the 1980s, bilateral relations between the countries were strong, and India-Cuba trade touched $300 million annually. But in the 1990s, trade between the countries plummeted dramatically, mainly because of the economic difficulties Cuba faced after the demise of the Soviet Union and a more liberalised trade policy in India.

In order to enhance and fortify those ties, India has agreed to waive accumulated Cuban commercial debt worth $62 million. The Indian government, with this gesture, has shown its solidarity with the Cuban people and has opened the doors for further commercial transactions and finance in order to bring those economic ties to their full potential.

Indeed, there is a lot of untapped potential on the economic front. Biotechnology has become an important element in the strengthening of those bonds. We have already started joint operations with the prestigious Indian company Biocon to produce a cancer vaccine developed by Cuban scientists, and the success of the Cuban health care system has impressed many Indian leaders, including Rahul Gandhi, who visited Cuba in 2007 to learn more about it.

Then Minister of State Anand Sharma, who headed the Indian delegation to the ministerial segment of the NAM Summit, donated an information technology centre to Cuba India Cuba Knowledge Centre which is still in place and constitutes an important factor of our bilateral relations. To date, almost 1,000 Cubans have been trained at the centre, which is managed by three professors from the National Institute of Information Technology (NIIT).

Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation (ITEC) has increased in the past few years. Cubas utilisation is 100 per cent and is highly appreciated. In 2009-2010, as many as 50 slots were allocated to Cuba and utilised, and this will grow to 65 a year.

An agreement on sports cooperation was signed in February 2007 during the visit of the then Indian Minister of Youth Affairs & Sports, Mani Shankar Aiyar. An action plan to strengthen India-Cuba sporting links was also agreed upon during the visit. First, Leon Richards, Vice-Minister for Sports in Cuba, visited India in May 2007. The Indian Ministry of Youth Affairs & Sports has drawn up plans to send Indian teams to participate in various sporting events in Cuba. The Indian wrestling team recently returned triumphantly from a competition in Cuba.

The Indian Amateur Boxing Federation, the Sports Authority of India, and the Army Sports Institute, Pune, have been hiring Cuban coaches for boxing, athletics, volleyball and diving on a regular basis. Coaching by Cuban specialists has helped Indian boxers win medals in various competitions, including the Beijing Olympics and, recently, the Junior Commonwealth Games. At the moment, there are nine Cuban coaches in India, and a whole programme of cooperation is in place.

Also, ties in the area of renewable energy have been strengthened, particularly after the visit to Cuba in 2007 of the then Minister for New and Renewable Energy, Vilas Muttemwar.

A few words should be said on the expressions of solidarity. In December 1992, while Cuba was passing through severe economic difficulties, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Communist Party of India and other friendly forces, including the Congress party, mobilised the nation and the common people to donate 10,000 tonnes of wheat and 10,000 tonnes of rice, which was highly appreciated by Cuba.

Fidel Castro personally welcomed the vessel that brought the grain and, making some of his characteristic calculations, immediately labelled it the Bread of India because it was sufficient for one loaf of bread for each one of Cubas 11 million people.

Likewise, India granted $2 million in cash as disaster relief assistance to Cuba in the wake of the massive devastation caused by hurricanes Gustav, Ike and Paloma in August and September 2008. The donation further strengthened the existing warm and friendly bilateral ties. Also, at the political level lots of committed action has been carried out on Indian soil in solidarity with the Cuban Five Heroes unjustly imprisoned in the U.S.

It would be proper to conclude these humble words with the final statement of the report prepared by Che Guevara on his return to Cuba from his visit to India:

Undoubtedly, Cuba and India are brothers, as all the people of the world should be in these times of nuclear disintegration and interplanetary missiles.

Miguel ngel Ramrez Ramos is the Cuban Ambassador to India.

More stories from this issue


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment