The roving revolutionary


A lock of Ernesto “Che” Guevara’s hair sits next to photos of Guevara’s dead body and fingerprints taken after his death. PHOTO/Reuters/Jessica Rinaldi/The Nation

With the 40th anniversary of Che Guevara’s death just past, there has been a revival of interest in this iconic revolutionary.

The imposing mansions of Vedado, a posh area of La Habana, tower over a small house that contains a quaint blue room. It is hard to believe such a modest edifice was once the home of Commander Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, the most powerful leader of Cuba after Fidel Castro. But in fact, this famous revolutionary was well known for his self-effacement. The house is now home to the Centro de Estudios Che Guevara, the Centre of Che Guevara Studies, an institution run by Che’s son, Camilo Guevara March.

A few weeks ago, I visited the Centro to gather information about Che’s little-known 1959 visit to India. Since Camilo was just about to leave for Argentina, Che’s motherland, to attend a function on the occasion of his father’s birthday, he instructed Research Officer Lazaro Baccalao to assist me. Baccalao shared a variety of relevant information, such as the names of the delegation members and the follow-up actions taken. He also dug out the report that Che submitted to Cuban authorities upon his return from India and other countries, and showed me a calendar decorated with photographs of Che’s meetings with several major Third World leaders.

One photo showed Jawaharlal Nehru with Che. The warmth of their relationship is documented in Che’s report, and is reflected in Nehru’s gift to Che – a khukuri that Baccalao reverently showed to me. The ivory-handled weapon was sheathed in a walnut scabbard engraved with a depiction of a woman whose identity Camilo, Baccalao informed me, was eager to learn. I told him that it was not a woman but a goddess, probably Durga, the symbol of shakti. When I noted that there was no better gift for a leader as powerful as Che, Baccalao smiled with pleasure.

Che earned Fidel Castro’s resolute admiration when the two fought together against the Cuban military dictator Fulgencio Batista. In February 1959, when Castro’s revolutionary government was established after two years of guerrilla warfare, he declared Che a “natural-born citizen of Cuba”. Six months later, Castro sent Che on an official tour of Asia, Africa and Europe. As an informal sort of foreign-cum-commerce minister, Che’s goal was to build confidence in and goodwill toward the new government, and to explore markets for Cuba’s main commodities, particularly sugar.

‘National leader’ in Delhi

Che left Havana on 12 June 1959. He celebrated his 31st birthday in Madrid, and flew to Delhi via Cairo. His plane reached Palam on the night of 30 June. Since Che had no official position in the Cuban government, this “national leader of Cuba”, as he was described in official communications, was received at the airport by a welcoming committee of one, Deputy Chief Protocol Officer D S Khosla, who later accompanied him to the newly built Hotel Ashok in Chanakyapuri.

The Cuban delegation accompanying Che was likewise small: a mathematician, an economist, a party worker, a captain of the rebel army, and a single bodyguard. Pardo Llada, a rightwing broadcaster, also joined the delegation in Delhi. Though Llada was ostensibly sent to assist Che, it is rumoured that Castro wanted some respite from his popular daily radio programme in Havana. In any case, Che was not happy to have him, and Llada ended up returning home midway through the trip.

On his first morning in Delhi, Che met Nehru in Teen Murti Bhawan, the prime minister’s residence. Nehru had a soft spot for socialist countries, and Che clearly admired the Indian leader. “Nehru received us with an amiable familiarity of a patriarchal grandfather,” Che wrote in his report, “but with noble interest in the dedication and struggles of the Cuban people, commending our extraordinary valiance and showing unconditional sympathy towards our cause.”

Formal talks took place before lunch, and Che explained that Cuba wanted to establish diplomatic and trade relations with India. Though Cuba did have a consulate in Calcutta, India had no diplomatic set-up in Cuba, with the Indian ambassador in Washington instead attending to Indian affairs in Cuba. The two delegations agreed to establish diplomatic missions as soon as possible, and post-lunch plans were made for the Cuban delegation to meet with Indian trade officials.

How tasty the lunch was is difficult to say, but Llada, in one of several half-baked stories about Che’s trip, described the occasion in rather disparaging terms:

Nehru, his daughter Indira, and her young sons, Sanjay and Rajiv, were all in attendance. The venerable Indian Prime Minister showed exquisite manners, explaining each exotic dish in turn to Guevara and his comrades, while Che, smiling politely, attempted to display some interest. The banquet went on in this fashion for over two hours, but the only words that came from Nehru’s mouth were about the meal in front of them. Finally, Che could stand it no longer and asked: “Mr Prime Minister, what is your opinion of Communist China?” Nehru listened with an absent expression, and answered, “Mr Comandante, have you tasted one of these delicious apples?” “Mr Prime Minister, have you read Mao Tse-tung?” “Ah, Mr Comandante, how pleased I am that you have liked the apples.”

Those who knew Nehru find Llada’s account difficult to swallow. But even if the mealtime conversation was insipid, things picked up in the afternoon. The delegation visited the Okhla Industrial Area, where they saw wood-moulding machines and met with Commerce Minister Nityanand Kanoongo, which proved to be an important meeting for future Indo-Cuban trade relations. In the evening, Che spent a half hour at the Cottage Industries Emporium.

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