Fidel Castro’s bear hug to Indira Gandhi in the spring of 1983 at the Non-Aligned Movement summit here best symbolises his warm ties with India which always looked to the legendary leader as a “great friend”. Under the late Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, India was amongst the first countries to extend recognition to Cuba after the 1959 revolution led by Castro, who overthrew the Fulgencio Batista regime.
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Unmindful of the US sanctions on Communist Cuba starting from the Cold War era, India has always maintained political, trade, cultural and people-to-people relations for about six decades when even Washington has revised its stand. It was Nehru who had reached out to the Cuban icon and told him that the non-aligned nations saw his leadership with immense hope.
Castro, who died Friday night aged 90, in 1960 had been denied the possibility of staying in five-star hotels in New York when he attended the UN General Assembly and the owner of Theresa Hotel came and invited him and his delegation to stay there. Then, important dignitaries paid him courtesy calls there. Castro years later told former External Affairs Minister K Natwar Singh that, “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.”
Castro’s relationship with India goes back decades when Nehru reached out to him and the friendship established between them was strengthened during Indira Gandhi’s tenure as the Prime Minister. The bond of India-Cuba friendship is best symbolised with the unforgettable image of Castro embracing Indira Gandhi while handing over the NAM chairmanship to her in 1983 in New Delhi.
“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 had said at the time. Castro and Gandhi had met on several occasions in the past. In September 1973, she hosted a dinner for him in Delhi when he was on his way to Vietnam.
Another landmark visit happened in August 1985, when then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi visited Cuba and held extensive discussions with Castro. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh also visited Cuba in 2006 while Vice President Hamid Ansari met Castro during a visit to Cuba in October, 2013. Ansari’s 65-minute long meeting with Castro reflected the warmth in the relationship between India and Cuba, two of the founding members of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM).
The meeting was the first time in a long time that the Cuban leader met a foreign dignitary. Reacting to Castro’s death, Natwar Singh said Castro was a very good friend for India, who stood with through thick and thin. “I had the privilege of meeting him 6-7 times both in Havana and Delhi…he was a very good friend for India. He stood by us through thick and thin,” Singh said today.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi also condoled his demise, describing him as one of the most iconic personalities of the 20th century. “Fidel Castro was one of the most iconic personalities of the 20th century. India mourns the loss of a great friend”, the Prime Minister said.
There have been numerous instances of bilateral cooperation between the two countries. In December 1992, while Cuba was passing through severe economic difficulties, India had provided 10,000 tonnes of wheat and 10,000 tonnes of rice. Fidel Castro termed the donation as the ‘Bread of India’.
In 2008, India wrote off the principal and interest of USD 62 million, equivalent to Rs. 1.28 billion debt owed to India. India also granted an aid of USD 2 million in cash as
disaster relief assistance to Cuba in the wake of massive devastations caused by the hurricanes Gustav, Ike and Paloma during August and September 2008.