By Rajiv Shah
It was August first week, 1985. Strictly speaking, this my first foreign trip. Earlier, in late 1960s, I had been to Nepal in a school tour, but that was hardly foreign. I was sent to Havana by my bosses in “Patriot”, the former Delhi-based pro-Soviet daily, to cover world indebtedness conference, called by Cuba’s supreme leader Fidel Castro. This was my first assignment; the effort, apparently, was to ascertain if I could be transferred to the news bureau from the desk.
A semi-communist then, I held Castro in high esteem, and I was actually quite excited. Hardly a photographer, I even carried with me to Havana a heavy Nikon SLR, which my maternal uncle, settled in US – Bharat Kinariwala, 90, professor-emeritus at Hawaii University – had given me. I had hardly put to it any use till then. I was sure, I would be able to click some photographs of Castro, which I proudly did, after borrowing a zoom lens from a reluctant photographer in the press gallery.
Castro threw a huge party for hundreds of state guests, mainly from Latin America. Some of the choicest cuisines and drinks were served. As the party was still on, I was able to shake hands with Castro. I introduced myself as an Indian journalist from “Patriot”, but I don’t know if he understood what I said. He murmured something in Spanish, which I couldn’t understand, as there was nobody to interpret. I moved on, as there was a big queue of hand shakers behind me.
Though I carried my Nikon, as a journalist, I didn’t (and still don’t, in today’s selfie age) think it was “proper” to be photographed with a politician, however big.
Despite being somewhat ideologically charged, what struck me most in Havana was, the only person who was “visible”, whether it was the huge hall where the conference was om, or the hotel, or outside in the city, was – Castro. There were big Castro cutouts around everywhere. When I was being “taken” from the Havana airport to the hotel, I noticed Castro lecturing on impressive movie screens, put up along the road. When I returned a little less than a fortnight later, I saw the screens were still intact, playing Castro as loudly.
On the TV screen in the hotel room also I saw nothing but Castro. No doubt, I was, I admit, overawed by his personality, but I kept asking myself and others whom I met: What’s the grand idea? Why such personality cult around him? After all, we had learned in Marxist study circles in Delhi University that personality cult was bad, and one person who is known to have been criticised for this was Joseph Stalin.
No doubt, I tried to argue out with myself that Castro was a hero, a great revolutionary, one who took up cudgels against the mighty America, overthrowing in an armed rebellion what we were told was a puppet regime headed by Batista. After all, he had “freed” Cuba from the clutches of an imperialist superpower.
But that didn’t stop me from asking: Why didn’t he take a democratic mandate by allowing his political opponents to have a say? After all, he was so popular, and would win hands down. Among those who accompanied me in Havana for the conference, where mostly Latin American representatives participated, was late Hari Saran Chhabra, India’s keen Africa watcher. I remember asking him: Why this? His initial answer was straight, “You have come here to enjoy, young man. Why bother about all this?”
During a local bus ride in Havana, we went around to have a feel of the city – and reached the sea beach. It was lovely weather, and we saw young boys and girls in swimming suits entering the bus. A few of them even had white rum bottles, which they were happily drinking. Recalling my query about democracy in Cuba, Chhabra, who knew a few Indian diplomats in Havana by name, and took me to the Indian embassy, too, said, “Don’t you see? They are happy. Free sex and liquor keeps them going. They aren’t bothered about democracy.” I don’t know if things have changed today.
During my nearly fortnight-long stay in Havana, we roamed about in the city, including bars. In one bar, we were asked, “Dollars? Want to exchange?” I didn’t visit local shops, but there was a dollar shop at the hotel, where we could buy goodies made in Japan, US, Germany. While Soviet Lada cars could be seen on roads, there seemed some craze for “foreign goods” among the locals. Officially, of course, we were told about the “great successes” of the Cuban socialist model – it had an excellent medical system, which even Americans had praised, and a booming cooperative agriculture.
Castro has just passed away. It should be sad moment for Cubans and communists all over the world, including India. By now many tributes must have been written about him. Despite being a hero, I have wondered, why couldn’t a person of Castro’s stature do a Daniel Ortega, the current president of Nicaragua, a tiny Central American republic? I remember having photographed Ortega at a communist meet in East Berlin from the same Nikon during my Moscow posting post-1986.
Leader of the socialist Sandinista National Liberation Front in 1970s and 1980s, Ortega, a known Castro protege, led an armed rebellion, like Castro, and won against an American puppet, Somoza. But after Ortega came to power, he fought elections. He was unsuccessful in presidential polls several times, including 1996 and 2001, but won in 2006, after which he remains an elected president, winning the polls in 2011 and 2016 (when he won 72 per cent votes).
Though Castro’s is not the only personality cult which I experienced, it has forced me wonder, whether it leads to adopting authoritarian, undemocratic ways, which suppresses political freedom. During my Moscow days, from 1986 to 1993, the period when Soviet communism collapsed, I also saw how personality cult came under deep stress. It existed during Stalin, was replaced by Khrushchev, and then by Brezhnev.
Textbooks were rewritten; first they omitted Stalin’s name under Khrushchev, and then Khrushchev’s name was erased by Brezhnev. I found in Gorbachev a statesman who cared little for building a cult around himself. He opened up the country, triggering democratic reform. It’s quite another thing that this opening up took away his power. But he has had no regrets.
In Gujarat, which is my karmabhoomi since 1993, I have found it scary that, after 2002, strong efforts have been made to promote some type personality cult under the name of “Hindu hriday samrat.” I saw how as Gujarat chief minister, Narendra Modi tried to promote himself as someone who has a higher stature than Mahatma Gandhi.
I am reminded of Mahatma Mandir in Gandhinagar – during an exhibition meant to celebrate the 50 years of the existence of Gujarat, huge Modi photographs and cutouts were dotted in the 2.5 lakh sq ft area. As those were not selfie days, visitors were encouraged to take snaps with Modi cutouts. In fact, Modi stood taller than the Mahatma and the Sardar everywhere. The Mahatma and the Sardar were hardly visible.
A minister, currently in the Gujarat Cabinet, and known to be close to Modi, told me, “Narendrabhai has reached a level where he is no more a human; he is superhuman.” All know how Indira Gandhi became authoritarian after she developed personality cult traits. What’s in store with Modi as India’s Prime Minister is any body’s guess.
This article was first published here: http://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/true-lies/castro-in-lieu-of-a-tribute/