Growing up in a Marxist household in northern Kerala, the first time I heard the name Fidel Castro was during the Falklands War of 1982. The elders at home were discussing UK’s aggression under Margaret Thatcher on Argentina, a Latin American country, which had ‘natural claim’ to the island to its south. Newspapers carried a statement by Castro trashing Thatcher for her blood-thirsty and deeply entrenched colonial ambitions that the Cuban leader said were not only in discordance with the values of the modern world but also a naked display of the wolf she was, in sheep’s clothing. I asked my uncle about this man and he replied that Castro was a leader who had defied the Americans from a country that is less than 100 miles from the United States, a country that he ‘founded’ along with his comrades such as Che Guevara and others. Che, himself an Argentine and a prize catch for Castro and his revolution, had met Fidel in Mexico while plotting against the then decadent and absolutely corrupt Cuban regime of Batista, which was backed by the US. Che is a greater revolutionary, my uncle explained, than Fidel. It was thanks to Che that Cuba has the best public healthcare system in the world, I was told. The conversation continued about Che’s revolutionary exploits and finally his death at the hands of Americans in Bolivia, a country whose name I had heard for the first time. But the names stuck: Che, the greatest revolutionary, Fidel (next behind him), Cuba, Thatcher, Bolivia, Batista, Latin America, and American murderers.
I wondered why there was not a single photograph of Che or Fidel at home (both maternal and paternal) while there were several huge ones of Marx, Engels, Lenin, AKG (AK Gopalan), EMS Namboodiripad, P Sundarayya, Stalin and those of local communist leaders of Kerala and Kannur, my hometown. Even in the CPM “party offices”, there were none. When I could contain my curiosity no further, I asked a senior communist leader about it. “We don’t entirely agree with their party line,” was the answer that left me confused, disappointed and somewhat indignant.
Their party line was different? Why? Was our party line different from that of Antonio Gramsci, the Italian communist? My father, a very popular CPM leader who died when he was just 41, had worshipped Gramsci. But soon I was glad that though their “party lines” were different, Kerala’s Marxists, who take pride in coming to power through the ballot, did bring out books through publishing houses they owned on Guevera, Castro, Gramsci and so on. Soviet publications that initially shaped my voracious reading habit, besides those by Amar Chitra Katha, also carried their stories and those of several others, including Georgi Dimitrov and Ho Chi Minh. While most of the reading material was in Malayalam, I had begun to lay hands on English books by Lenin (from a section of my late father’s huge library at home) titled Lenin and his Comrades-in-Arms and so on. It was from those cupboards that I had learnt of expressions such as Frankfurt School and Black Panther movement; names such as Comrade Palmiro Togliatti, Christopher Lasch, Sartre, Angela Davis, Aldous Huxley, Julius Fučík, Mao, and Rosa Parks. I soon realized though “party lines” were different and though comrades in Kerala didn’t want to identify themselves with “adventurism”, especially in the aftermath of the rejection of the Sundarayya line of thought at the Jalandhar Party Congress of the CPM in 1978, they zealously used the heroic tales of these revolutionaries, including names such as Steve Biko (the South African leader who was mercilessly tortured by the apartheid regime before he was bumped off), to instill revolutionary fervour among the youth. I was glad they did it.
I had carried a book on Fidel when I left my hometown headed for boarding school in Trivandrum. Aged 10, the three books I had were a Malayalam translation of ‘Das Kapital’ by Karl Marx (which I did not read until I was in my 20s), a book by Maharashtrian social reformer Godavari Parulekar on her work among Warli peasants (translated edition) and ‘History will Absolve Me’ by Fidel. Life was difficult away from home, and I fought back homesickness in the company of Fidel and, later, numerous books on the Cold War available in the school library, which was the finest one for any Indian school back in the mid-1980s. I found a book on Jesuit-educated Fidel’s religious views and his comments on fellow revolutionaries, including Che. I still remember a line from an interview to the author, “I may not be a better revolutionary than Che, but I was a better cook.” His sense of humour was contagious, and his remembrances of his days in school in Santiago de Cuba and later in Havana gripping. For a person who was pretty pleased with his memory power, I was humbled by the depth and breadth of Fidel’s recollections of his childhood and each instance of his life – the 1952 takeover over Cuba by army chief Batista who abrogated elections that year; the botched July 26 attack on Moncada Barracks by his men and women; his days in prison; his release; escape to Mexico; first meeting with Che; the failed Granma mission from Mexico to Cuba; life in the Sierra Maestra mountains; the triumph in early 1959; early overtures to President Eisenhower; his hatred of Richard Nixon; his contempt for the man who wanted him dead, JFK, and brother Robert; ties with Soviet Union and Nikita Khrushchev; assistance for liberation struggles from Angola to South Africa and Nicaragua; the assassination of Che; hazards of nation-building; and prostitution in Cuba.
By the late ’80s when Gorbachev introduced reforms in the Soviet Union, some of us, a small group of avid readers, discussed the prospects and the changes that would, expectedly, alter international geopolitics; we even discussed why Fidel was a better administrator than Che would ever be. Suddenly, Che was feted as a romantic and Fidel as a pragmatist and a survivor in the rough and tumble of rapidly altering world politics. Over the next years, we watched with great interest and a whiff of despair as Fidel brought back the dollar, private investment from Canada, and religious freedom and joint business ventures to overcome shock in the wake of the fall of the Soviet Union and the rise of the US in the new, unipolar world. By then, I had gorged on an endless number of books on Fidel and Cuba – including those about conspiracy theories on Fidel’s role in counter-intelligence, one-upping US leaders and the assassination of JFK. “He got JFK before JFK got him” was the abiding theme of such books. It was around this time I began to read in the US media of his “excesses” through “tales” woven by asylum seekers from Cuba in Florida. We discussed the politics – as well as the possible truth – behind such stories. Dictators tend to be dictators, we agreed. But the American press and Fidel’s political rivals had a goal as important as his own to survive and stay ahead of competition in propaganda (Granma, a newspaper named after the yacht that carried revolutionaries in 1956, did more than that).
To our dismay, Cuba would soon descend into chaos as its economy shrunk more than one-third from 1989 to 1993, and Fidel called for unity – his speeches still had the fire of his early days; some of us Cuba-obsessed friends had already watched various documentaries of the Cuban revolution and interviews of Fidel with the likes of Barbara Walters and others. Fidel had the swagger and charisma that left us deeply impressed. But by the mid-1990s he seemed to have understood that time was running out fast. I was among those who worked with Marxist volunteers to send rice to Cuba. Around then, many of my friends, youth leaders, travelled to Cuba, and told us about the endurance and resilience of the Cuban people, their public display of faith in Fidel and also about poverty and destitution. American embargo and the end of subsidies from the Soviet Union would have a deep impact on the island nation from whom Russians had bought sugar much above the market price and sold oil at subsidized rates.
In our discussions, we kept rewinding and indulging in hindsight hypocrisy. What went wrong and what could have been done to stop this, was Fidel actually a tyrant – these were among the endless subjects we discussed. In hindsight, though, Fidel was a revolutionary who transcended the limitations of his small country and its dangerous proximity with the most powerful and hostile country in the world, the US. He also roped in the Soviet Union in his political projects – from Africa to Latin America, support from the then USSR followed Fidel’s pledge of help. He used Soviet money to fund ‘revolutions’ in these countries and trained commandoes to take on the might of the ‘imperialists’. More importantly, our discussions revolved around his instinct for turning adversities into opportunities. After the 1959 revolution, he gave the former Spanish colony and gambling destination famous for its rum, rumba and roulette a national identity; following the Bay of Pigs war in which the US had to finally retreat in the face of a nuclear conflagration with the Soviet Union, he converted the former “protectorate” of the US into a socialist showpiece. He also survived more than 600 assassination attempts using the most creative ways. In a mission named Operation Mongoose, the CIA planned to poison his cigar. They also tried to insert a kind of powder in his boots that would lead to the loss of his famed beard, and attempted to poison his food with the help of mafia groups. Fidel survived them all. He used the exodus from Cuba in the 1980s and the 1990s to get rid of political dissidents and criminals by emptying jails. He survived 10 American presidents and the boycott of the Roman Catholic Church until Pope John Paul II finally visited Havana in 1998. He survived his Cold War enemies as well as his allies. As declassified American documents reveal, he outlived and outdid powerful men and their plots to eliminate him for decades.
Among our many discussions on Fidel were tidbits of information about his sexual appetite, propensity to talk more and listen less, and his huge ego. An interesting one was a story narrated by his friend, Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who once went fishing with Fidel and another friend. This friend kept count of the number of fish he caught, which far exceeded Fidel’s. Marquez warned him not to count loudly: “We will never leave.” Marquez’s advice went unheeded. It was very late by the time this friend understood his mistake. They had to fish until 5am when Fidel caught one fish more than this friend. Fidel then said, “Let’s leave.”
Notably, he wasn’t a communist to start with. He was a radical nationalist, as the late Marxist patriarch EMS Namboodiripad had often reminded us in the past. Yet, for the world of communism he was the last icon and perhaps the only leader in the post-Second World War era to show signs of being a celebrated political titan the extent of whose influence on international politics, ironically, remains underestimated.