My secret mission to meet Fidel

Summer 2003

By Professor Vic Allen

The NUM’s official historian Professor Vic Allen made a secret visit to Cuba in 1988 to meet with Fidel Castro. This is his story of an encounter that lasted four hours and showed that already in 1988 Fidel was preparing for the collapse of Soviet socialism

The NUM’s official

historian Professor Vic Allen made a secret visit to Cuba in 1988 to meet with Fidel Castro. This is his story of an encounter that lasted four hours and showed that already in 1988 Fidel was preparing for the collapse of Soviet socialism

One day, early in December 1988, during the period of impending crisis in the Socialist world, John Hendy, the NUM’s legal advisor, and I, its historian, were asked by Arthur Scargill to accompany Cyril Ramaphosa and James Motlatsi, the general secretary and president of the South African NUM, on a visit to Cuba in order to meet Fidel Castro.

The intention was to discuss with him the impact for southern Africa of Cuba’s support for Angola in its struggle for independence against Unita, the rebel force backed by the US and South Africa. Scargill had arranged the meeting through his friendship with Castro but, unfortunately, had had to withdraw from it himself. The arrangements were made in secret because Ramaphosa and Motlatsi had to leave South Africa clandestinely. So, none of us even told our respective families where we were going or that we were likely to be away for Xmas.

We all met up in a café at Heathrow early on 21 December, along with a diplomat from the Cuban Embassy who had brought the visas and rubber franks to stamp our passports in his jacket pockets.

He proceeded to arrange them on the table, as if in his office. It is unlikely that this little ceremony was missed by MI5 that was then co-operating with the London station of the CIA in an intelligence entrapment operation against members of the Cuban embassy. But we faced no visible hitches.

On our arrival in Havana that evening we were met by Angel Dalmau, a representative of the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party who was responsible for southern Africa and who was to be our guide. He later became the Cuban Ambassador in South Africa and is now a deputy Foreign Minister. He took us first to be greeted by the leaders of the Energy Workers’ Union and then to a spacious marble, colonial-era villa that had been the home of a bourgeois family before the Revolution, where we were to stay as its only guests.

It soon became clear that we were not in Cuba for a couple of meetings. An itinerary had been drawn up that was spread over eight days. During that period we were to meet with Fidel Castro but no one knew when or where. Such was the persistence of the threats to his life by the CIA and its cohorts that few people were aware of his daily movements or where he slept each night. We were not informed, therefore, of the day and time of our meeting, only that we should expect to be summoned at very short notice.

Whilst we were waiting we visited the Museum of the Revolution and learned a little about Cuba’s incredible transformation – of how the few survivors from the original expedition from Mexico had recruited 150 supporters to attack a garrison town protected by 5,000 troops. And how, in the final push, Castro’s motley army of about 2,000 had defeated Batista’s 80,000 government troops.

Afterwards, we visited a chrome mine and two factories and talked with trade union and Communist Party officials. We saw the impressive Cuban health service and education systems in action in the countryside. We dined in the bar that had been frequented by Hemingway and developed a taste for Cuban rum. Christmas day passed by with scarcely a mention.

On Boxing Day we had a long meeting with Jorge Risquet, the secretary of the Central Committee with responsibility for foreign affairs. Risquet had been involved in the Angolan operations and had led the Cuban delegation to the United Nations in New York where their outcome had been debated. He briefed us for our meeting with Castro by explaining Cuba’s intentions and operations in Angola and its attitude to apartheid in South Africa.

He insisted that there could be no military solution in South Africa so that ultimately there had to be negotiations. It would, he believed, be self-defeating to alarm the white population. The military operations, therefore, needed to be confined to military targets.

The next day, Tuesday, 27 December, we were told to be ready to meet with Fidel Castro. During the evening, just after we had started our dinner, Dalmau came in to say that we had to leave in 10 minutes. The meeting with Castro was to be at 8 pm.

The government’s offices were housed in three adjoining buildings, the Central Committee, the Palace of State and the Palace of Ministers. We went into the middle one, the Palace of State, and waited in a large anteroom. The door opened behind us and in walked Castro, Risquet, an interpreter and 2 security guards.

Castro was dressed in his green army fatigues, rather worn boots and was wearing his army cap. He greeted us and we walked along a corridor to his office. John Hendy and I trailed in the rear. It was clear that we were accessories and that we would most probably not be involved in the discussions.

Castro fired a number of questions to Ramaphosa about the mining industry, his union and the ANC. In so far as there was a dialogue it was between those two. Motlatsi, Hendy and myself sat and listened silently.

Then Fidel Castro described in some detail the critical battle of Cuito Cuanavale in southern Angola, a town vital for guarding the route to South West Africa and the Caprivi Strip, on the border of Botswana. The Cubans, he said, had overwhelmed the South Africans. Their MIG fighters were vastly superior to the South African Mirages; they had more tanks and superior artillery.

They could have rolled the South African forces back over their own borders and into their own territory and, he said, for a brief moment they thought of doing just that. They had intervened, however, only to stop the penetration of the South African forces and once they had succeeded in doing that their job was done. The Cubans, moreover, had no intention of fighting Unita. So, as in any event the Angolans wanted a quick end to the fighting, they held back.

After the Cuban victory, Castro explained, the South African government could only maintain its illegal occupation of South West Africa if it moved two army divisions from the townships and it could not do that without leaving the way open for the ANC to advance.

It had to make a critical strategic choice, therefore, and it chose to leave South West Africa and agree to the formation of Namibia as a newly independent state. Since then, the accolades for Cuba have never ceased in southern Africa. Even now, 14 years after the event, mention Castro, or even simply Cuba, at any gathering of black people there and you will hear roars of approval.

After about an hour, Castro looked clearly tired so we prepared to leave. I had given Risquet a signed copy of my book, The Russians are Coming, which the editorial committee of the Communist Party had agreed to translate and publish in Latin America. He asked me if I had a spare copy for Castro but as I did not, he suggested that I should write an inscription in his copy and give that to Castro. This I did, prompting Castro to comment that the book seemed to have been going around a lot.

He flicked the pages and opened the book at a section on Soviet democracy. From that moment the atmosphere in the room changed. He asked if it had been written before the policy of perestroika had been introduced. I replied that its publication had coincided with Gorbachev’s new policy but that I had since written an article for Izvestia, pointing out some of the risks implicit in it. He asked for a copy so that it could be published in Cuba.

After that, Castro began a discussion about Soviet policy and the character of Socialism. He had met Gorbachev earlier in the year and had strong reservations about the course he was pursuing.

We went on to discuss Socialist emulation and the problem of incentives in a Socialist system. He never talked in abstract terms but always through practical illustrations from the experiences of ordinary working people.

He explained how the Cuban government planned to train 10,000 more doctors than it needed so that they could work in Third World countries. A Cuban Medical Brigade was already in the Soviet Republic of Armenia, helping to tend those who had been injured by the earthquake that had devastated the country on 7 December. Cuba’s policy turned imperialism on its head because it gave help where it was needed without expecting anything in return.

He was not optimistic, however, about world events in the near future. Indeed, he did not think that the Soviet Union and the socialist countries in central Europe would be able to withstand the destructive pressures for change from western capitalism that were facing them. But he did not have the same view of Cuba.

With great self-assurance, he asserted that Cuba might be the only Socialist star in the sky during the next decade. It turned out that he was right. Cuba was left, almost from that moment, to struggle for its right to self-determination against the corrupting might of the USA, without the backing and material assistance from the Soviet Union, and the GDR in particular.

Cuba had, he said, to make a number of internal adjustments. Because of the growing shortage of petrol it had to make its agriculture less dependent on mechanised methods. Already oxen were replacing tractors.

It had to become more self-sufficient in a whole range of production activities. Moreover, it had followed the rigid Soviet model too closely and needed both to decentralise and draw more women and young people into decision-making operations. He envisaged a difficult decade for Cuba.

Our meeting had been transformed into a vibrant discussion group. Castro became alive. He moved around the room, emphasising his points with a finger that frequently prodded my chest, leaving a rather sore spot the next morning.

As our discussion drew to a close, we walked slowly to the lift but on the way he raised the question of Soviet agriculture and Gorbachev’s decision to break up the state and collective farms and distribute their land to small farmers.

I had learned, whilst in Moscow a few weeks before, that the Soviet food problem was primarily caused by the lack of refrigerated transport facilities and not by inadequate levels of production. More than half of Soviet agricultural production perished during the long drives from the farms to the urban centres. Castro agreed. In any case, he said, Cuba had experimented with small, individually run farms and the experiment had failed. They had made virtually no contribution to society but the farmers had succeeded in making themselves rich.

Cuba’s task, he said, was to convert the farms into collective ones. He knew that Ramaphosa, Motlatsi and I were going on to Moscow to meet the Soviet Miners’ leaders. Such was the consensus of opinion between us that he asked whether we would be meeting any Soviet Politburo members because, he said, “if you do will you press your arguments on them?”

It had taken us half an hour to cover the few yards to the lift. We had been together for four hours. Castro thanked us for talking with him. It had not, he said, been the kind of meeting he had planned. We left Havana two days later.

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