When Fidel Castro insisted on calling me Indira

A former member of the South Commission led by the late Julius Nyerere recalls her visit to Cuba in 1987.

In the passing of Fidel Castro, the world has lost perhaps one of the last warriors of the anti-colonial, anti-economic domination struggles.

I had the privilege of spending one week in Cuba in 1987, as a member of the South Commission led by the late Julius Nyerere. Fidel, as we all got used to calling him, like many other leaders from the former colonies, had enormous regard for Nyerere. So he literally laid out the red carpet for us. Nyerere – as indeed many of the leaders who fought against colonialism, including Jawaharlal Nehru, Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt and those who founded the Non Aligned Movement – had similar regard for Fidel.

Many of the leaders of that era, especially those who fought against colonialism, whether it was Fidel, or Yasser Arafat, had extraordinary love for India and particularly for Nehru’s daughter, Indira Gandhi. I became a beneficiary of that love. Since I was the only Indian in the delegation and wore a sari, I would get special treatment from Fidel, who would insist on calling me Indira and embrace me, hold my hands while he walked around the various buildings and spaces that he wanted to show us.

Fidel not only would tell us about all the achievements of Cuba but often accompanied us on our tours. He hosted dinners and also spent a great deal of time with us during the various cultural shows that he held for us.

We were shown Cuba’s extraordinary health services , hospitals , and institutes of medical research. He accompanied us and explained how former colonies could import the latest medical equipment from Cuba, and boycott the West that then had a monopoly in the area. The socialist touch was tangible and visible – patients in hospital rooms would range from cleaners to bureaucrats, all treated at par and given the same facility.

The thought that there was this one great leader who, whatever his faults, could not only resist control and threats by another country but actually managed to push them out and established autonomy seemed like an inspiration.

At the Commission we were searching for a political economy framework, for rebuilding the former colonies. We were looking for something affirmative, so that we could cut the dependence on the North, which was still there, despite independence. We had visited many sites and many other countries as part of our quest. As we were leaving Cuba, Nyerere turned to us and said, “There, we have our model for the South,” much to the dismay of some of the other members of the Commission who were less inclined to the Left.

I mourn the loss of the last of the unstoppable leaders of the former colonies, and with him the loss of the spirit to fight the overpowering presence of the neo-colonialism

Devaki jain was a member of the erstwhile South Commission.

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