This week, 60 years ago, Fidel Castro took over as the supreme leader of Cuba, an island in the West Indies. It was discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1492.
He was a dedicated revolutionary from his early twenties. On being sentenced to jail (he employed no lawyer), Castro defended himself. His concluding statement in court in 1953 is now part of the history of the 20th century: “I know that the regime will try to supress the truth by all possible means. I know that there will be a conspiracy to bury me in oblivion. But my voice will not be stifled—it will rise from my breast even when I feel most alone, and my heart will give it all the fire that callous cowards deny it… Condemn me. It does not matter. History will absolve me.”
During the course of my long, intrepid, chequered life I have met and seen at close quarters many world renowned leaders. Of these, only six I would call charismatic: Gandhi, Nehru, De Gaulle, Chou-en-Lai and Fidel Castro. I saw John Kennedy from close, to be bowled over by his exceptional charisma. I never exchanged a word with him.
To become an outstanding leader, charisma is an absolute necessity. One cannot acquire charisma. It is nature’s gift.
Dr Sander Van der Linder of Cambridge University writes, “…Charisma is elusive”, but adds that all charismatic individuals share, “attractiveness, temperament, voice, eye contact, they use verbal and non-verbal communication very well; and of course they have vision and communicate it powerfully…”
Back to Fidel Castro. I met him half a dozen times. My longest association with him was during the seventh NAM (Non Aligned Movement) Summit held in New Delhi in March 1983. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi appointed me Secretary General. President Castro was Chairman of the sixth Summit, held in Havana. The seventh Summit was inaugurated on the morning of 7 March, President Castro was still Chairman. He was to hand over the NAM baton to Indira Gandhi in the afternoon. At the end of the morning session a totally unexpected crisis erupted. (I have written about this earlier, but the incident’s novelty does not diminish on retelling.) My deputy, Satti Lamba came to me in some alarm. He informed me that we had a serious problem on our hands. The PLO President Yasser Arafat had sent word that he was leaving Delhi in an hour’s time. He had been insulted in the morning session. He was asked to speak after the King of Jordan (whom he loathed). I immediately telephoned the PM, telling her of Arafat’s tantrum. I requested her to come to Vigyan Bhavan: “Please bring President Castro with you. He is still Chairman.” Both arrived within a few minutes. Castro sent for Arafat, who was in a sulk. “Are you Indira Gandhi’s friend?” asked Castro. Arafat: “Friend, friend? She is my sister.” Castro: “Then behave like a brother and attend the afternoon session.” It was all over in two minutes. The PLO President was conspicuously present at the afternoon session. Indira Gandhi was presiding.
During one of my visits to Havana, I asked President Castro: “Excellency, when did you first meet Prime Minister Nehru?” Here I relate the fascinating story.
In September 1960 was observed the 15th anniversary of the founding the United Nations. Any number of heads of state and government arrived in New York for the occasion—Jawaharlal Nehru, Tito, Naseer, Sockarno, Nkrumah, Khrushchev, Macmillan, Eisenhower and many more.
Fidel Castro also arrived. No hotel in New York would put him up. He called on UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold, telling him that he must find accommodation for him and his delegation. If not, he would pitch a tent in the UN’s lawn.
Without waiting for Dag Hammarskjold’s answer, Castro decided to stay in a hotel in Harlem. Fidel Castro next told me that Nehru was the first world leader to come to Harlem to meet him. “I can never forget that. I was 34 years old, not well known, nervous. Nehru treated me like an equal. My self-confidence was immensely strengthened.”
President Fidel Castro addressed the UN General Assembly. If my memory serves me right, he spoke for four hours.