Modi’s presence at Castro’s funeral would have served a dual purpose.
Whatever his personal inclinations, Narendra Modi should have been in Santiago de Cuba last Sunday for India’s sake. The Prime Minister’s presence at Fidel Castro’s funeral would have served a dual purpose without supporting armed revolution or appearing anti-American. It would have assured Afro-Asia that India doesn’t forsake old friends. It would also have warned Donald Trump that India’s own national interests will always take precedence over America’s global strategies.
India needs the US. We should be grateful to P.V. Narasimha Rao for setting the relationship on an even keel after decades of estrangement, and to Manmohan Singh for his special ties with George W. Bush which produced the civil nuclear agreement. Mr Modi must also be complimented on building a series of strategic agreements on those foundations. But by paying his respects to Castro’s memory, he would have extended his own space for diplomatic manoeuvre with the incoming US administration.
The presence of Justin Trudeau, Canada’s young Prime Minister, would have served a similar purpose. It seemed at first that Mr Trudeau would attend the ceremony. He called Castro “remarkable” and “larger than life”, remembering him as a “legendary revolutionary and orator” who was a good friend of his father’s. The seminal visit Pierre Trudeau, Canadian Prime Minister from 1968 to 1979 and 1980 to 1984, paid to Cuba in 1976 may have showed the way for an eventual reconciliation between Washington and Havana. It was not diplomacy based on Cold War polemics and hectoring but on realism and respect.
Inspired by its own legitimate national reasons, Canada has always tried to rise above the limitations of geography and stress it isn’t an American satellite. Thus, when the US trade and investment embargo on Cuba was at its most stringent, Ottawa, understanding this was a crude attempt at regime change, extended full support to Canadian companies investing in Cuba. Canadian tourists were encouraged to flock there. Castro showed his appreciation by attending Pierre Trudeau’s funeral in 2000.
Instead of returning the compliment, Justin Trudeau seems to have lost his nerve. Perhaps he received a hint from Barack Obama. Perhaps his advisers warned of Mr Trump’s likely reaction. Perhaps he worried about domestic critics who accused him of naively pandering to a dictator. He was mocked on Twitter and attacked by hard-right US Republicans, such as Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz. Being himself of Cuban descent, Senator Cruz takes a rigid line against Havana. “I very much hope that we don’t see any US government officials going to Fidel Castro’s funeral”, he declared. “I hope we don’t see Barack Obama and Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton and Democrats lining up to lionise a murderous Communist dictator.”
Many commentators are surprised Mr Trudeau paid any attention to these remarks. They feel his father wouldn’t have cared. Nor would he have snubbed Castro’s memory to mollify social media or the so-called “alternative right” in the US. Pierre Trudeau would proudly have emphasised his own independence by going to the funeral. Being experienced and realistic, he knew that America’s political morality is a matter of realpolitik. Whether or not Franklin D. Roosevelt ever actually said of the ruthless Nicaraguan dictator, Anastasio Somoza, that he “may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch”, America’s brutal pragmatism banished all concern for genuine democracy and human rights when it came to authoritarian protégés like South Vietnam’s Ngo Dinh Diem, South Korea’s Syngman Rhee, Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines or the Shah of Iran. They were perceived as anti-Communist, which only meant they were anti-Soviet.
We are still witnessing a form of triumphalism that recalls Richard Nixon’s gloating when the Soviet Union disintegrated. Declaring that the time had come for America to reset its geopolitical compass, he crowed: “We have a historic opportunity to change the world.” Richard Cheney, George W. Bush’s vice-president, repeated the boast. “No country is our match in conventional military technology or the ability to apply it”, he proclaimed. “There are no significant alliances hostile to our interests.” We may hear more such bombastic rhetoric from the Trump administration.
Castro’s 900-km funeral procession retraced his 1959 Caravan of Liberty after one of the 20th century’s most audacious revolutions. At the end of it, Castro delivered a democratically idealistic speech at two o’clock of the morning in pouring rain, assuring a huge crowd of Cubans they would no longer suffer the oppression inflicted by Fulgencio Batista. “This time the revolution is for real,” he promised. “Will we ban freedom of the press? No. Will we ban freedom of association? No!” Seven years later, the same city witnessed mass executions, admittedly of rebels organised and financed from Florida. He also bequeathed his office to his brother like a hereditary monarch… or Communist dictator.
The confrontation isn’t over. Not because 85-year-old Raul Castro vows to continue his brother’s revolution but because even a victorious US can’t stop tilting at windmills in Moscow, Kiev, Pyongyang and scattered Arab capitals. Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi have been eliminated but Bashar al-Assad survives in Damascus. It’s because the fight continues that India’s Prime Minister should have stood with the Presidents of Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia and the Congo to honour Castro and remind the world that an India committed to the free market still retains its soul.
P.V. Narasimha Rao told the Lok Sabha that non-alignment was synonymous with independence. “So long as you want an independent country, it will have to be non-aligned.” If Mr Modi’s India aspires to a global role he cannot afford to be seen as tamely following Mr Obama, Britain’s Theresa May and Germany’s Angela Merkel, who also boycotted Castro’s funeral.