The mythical Fidelismo

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A simple direct answer; no attempt was made to hide anything. The buildings are testimony of an era of splendour and of the playground of the rich and famous, long gone.

US sanctions and other efforts to impoverish Cubans have had many effects but not quite enough to make these proud people welcome back unbridled American economic domination which Castro banished in 1959.

I asked a Cuban official: Do Cubans want to be compared with their apparently flourishing neighbours in the Caribbean and other Latin American countries? His answer was quick and unhesitant: "I do not believe Cubans desperately want prosperity if it means their country is beholden to the United States. Our dignity, independence and sovereignty are more important to us than wearing Giorgio Armani or Valentino suits or driving Mercedes cars."

Havana, in fact, the entire island - may be a bit tired-looking, deprived and lacking in general prosperity, but dull it is not. I did sense a great feeling of dignity and a vibrant spirit of independence, self-reliance and resilience in the Cuban ethos.

Castro has relaxed many things and continues to open up his country to foreigners and direct foreign investments. Inspite of this and further relaxation, it is not believed, in the short term at least, that any US administration will lift its embargo against Castro short of a complete comedown by Castro or after him by his brother Raul, the heir apparent and Minister of the Armed Forces and First Vice President.

Others cited as possible successors are the youthful and energetic Foreign Minister, Roberto Robaina, 41 who has visited Kuala Lumpur and who, during the whole trip, was friendly and approachable, Carlos Lage, the Vice President who read the citation when Mahathir was conferred Cuba's highest award, the (order of Jose Marti named after Cuba's Father of independence, and Ricardo Alarcon, president of the Cuban Parliament.

Castro, who speaks softly, appears to possess complete grasp of international relations. His analysis of international politics is an expression of realities and yet events and history seem to have conspired against him, making him and his nation as it were an "unwelcome guest" or even an "outcast" in the eyes of some nations.

Throughout the visit, Castro was genuinely delighted, and visibly moved. He once hugged Mahathir, saying: "You are very courageous to visit me, you are a friend. I am grateful to you, to Malaysia and the people of your great country."

Castro may have mellowed a bit with age (he is 71-years old, born 13 Aug, 1926).

Castro, dignified, serene and good-looking, wore a jungle green uniform for the meetings and the khaki dress of the Commander-in-Chief of the Cuban Armed Forces for the evening reception. My impression of him is that he loves talking animatedly, is friendly and hospitable. The man in person, so it seemed, was different from what has been portrayed by media and books.

What stands out most is the piercing eyes (brown, I think) which seemed to take in everything. As far as I can see, he is healthy. He is dynamic and magical.

Mahathir and Castro appeared to hit it off with each other as he did with President Carlos Menem of Argentina. This is not to say that Mahathir lacks rapport with President Frei of Chile and President Sanguinetti of Uruguay who were also his hosts. Mahathir and Castro seem to be kindred spirits, while he and Menam are also good friends, and he is very correct with the other two.

In any event, a college of American military scholars and historians has named Castro as one of the 100 all-time great military commanders of the world which puts him in the list among Mao Zedong, Marshall, Mac-Arthur, Eisenhower, Rommel and Giap.

Mahathir, like Castro, has managed to speak out against the sole superpower and the powerful rich. Whether he has made himself a hero or otherwise depends on one's point of view. Mahathir has made his pronouncements and stance clear about the ringgit manipulators and speculators. What is needed now perhaps is that the government should give Mahathir's ideas teeth.

For much of the 1990s, Castro seemed to have continued a virtuoso performance, indicative of his willingness and of his desire to get on with what is to come, rather than to pine for a romantic past.

Cuban resilience is exemplary. This is perhaps what it can teach the rest of the world. When in the new year of 1959, the sergeant-turned dictator Batista fled Cuba with his loot, the myth was born: Fidelismo or Castroism.

Dato' Abdullah Ahmad is Malaysia's Special Envoy to the United Nations

(This article has been reproduced with the kind permission of Sun )