I remember two vivid pictures in my early childhood days on front page newspapers and in magazines. One was Yasser Arafat embracing Indira Gandhi and the second was Fidel Castro giving our visibly flushed Prime Minister a bear hug.
Somehow, it established in my young subconscious mind the geopolitics of the early 1980s. We were anti-Israel and pro-Palestine and very clearly pro-Communist.
The warmth that the indefatigable Fidel Catro showed for his “sister” Indira was in fact symbolic of the pro-Russian tilt that the two countries had, putting them on the same side of a bipolar world. Similarly, the shared personal anathema both leaders had for leaders of the United States was a common bond. Ironically, the “japphi” moment happened at the “Non Aligned Summit” in New Delhi in 1983.
As I grew up, I heard with fascination about how a small country like Cuba was a role model when it came to education and health care, surpassing the record of many developed countries.
Besides, the cigar puffing Cuban leader was seen more as a “hero” much the same way as the angry Amitabh Bachchan of Bollywood. He was the David who could take on the proverbial Goliath of America; who could dare the supreme authority that the world dreaded.
His refreshingly candid admissions about his beliefs and personal life showed he was not a hypocrite. He once disclosed that as a young Catholic boy, his father encouraged him to confess at a church if he had an unholy thought about any girl. Castro said that he was so tired of running constantly between his home and church because of the frequency of impure thoughts, he decided religion was not for him.
Born to a nouveau rich family, he had established himself as a revolutionary who was determined to topple the government of President Fulgencio Batista.
Fidel Castro not only succeeded in doing that, he also ended up becoming the second longest serving head of state, bettered only by the tenure of still on throne Queen Elizabeth II.
This was despite the fact the he was perhaps the leader who survived the maximum number of assassination attempts in the world, numbered by some at an infamous 638.
CIA had come up with a whole range of fantastic to bizarre ideas to get rid of Castro including exploding cigars, poison pills and dangerous seductresses. Not only did the Cuban President survive, he thrived. He was never intimidated by the constant threat to life but continued to take USA head on.
Even when Uncle Sam sent in counter revolutionaries to invade Cuba in what was called the Bay of Pigs Invasion, Castro thwarted the para-military attack sponsored by CIA in three days flat.
Undeterred by the economic blockade imposed by the US, the revolutionary leader had turned to Soviet Union for help and created strong links with all those siding with Communist regimes worldwide.
It was only in his later days, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, that problems began to brew and it was time to slowly move towards accepting newer geopolitical realities.
Faced with a financial crunch in the early 1980s, he had softened enough to ask an American banker for advice on restructuring Cuba’s debt load. At that time, he had admitted his mistake in kicking out the International Monetary Fund in the early days of his Communist rule.
Nearly a decade back, old age forced Fidel to hand over reins to his brother Raul who was a part of the famous trinity along with him and Che Guevara. More moderate and in sync with times, Fidel was alive to witness a scene of President Barack Obama shaking hands with Raul Castro.
Fidel Castro understood that world was a different place now. In his younger days, it would have been unthinkable to let his brother meet a US President. Last September, the Cuban leader also met Pope Francis at his home in Havana and gifted him a copy of the book ‘Fidel and Religion’. Interestingly, he had also held audiences with Pope John Paul in 1998 and Pope Benedict in 2012.
Finally, it seemed, he had made peace with himself and the world.