He leaves neither his friends nor foes indifferent. What kind of man is Fidel? Why has he attracted millions of supporters and followers? Former Soviet Ambassador to Cuba and Chairman of the RSFSR Council of Ministers (1983-1989) Vitaly VOROTNIKOV gave an interview about Fidel Castro to RIA Novosti defense commentator Viktor LITOVKIN.
Question: As you know, I asked you for an interview about Fidel Castro in connection with his 80th birthday and his illness. Let's wish him a speedy recovery. You worked with him for many years, met him often, and discussed different subjects. When did you first see him? What impression did he produce on you?
Answer: It is both easy and difficult to answer this question. It is easy because I've already written several books about Fidel Castro and am now finishing another one. I know a lot about him and met him often. But it is difficult to describe him in a medium as laconic as an interview. Moreover, it is impossible to talk about him without talking about Cuba's relations with the Soviet Union and Russia. Fidel and Cuba are inseparable... But let's try.
We met for the first time in Voronezh in 1972. I was the first secretary of the city's regional Party committee. Fidel was in the Soviet Union on an official visit and arrived in Voronezh to see the performance of the nuclear power plant. He was planning to build one in Cuba and to launch an electronics industry. Voronezh was the right place. Fidel could see the first units of the nuclear plant - both low-power ones and units with huge capacities, up to a thousand megawatts. He was accompanied by Alexei Kosygin, chairman of the U.S.S.R. Council of Ministers, and Konstantin Katyshev, who was the secretary of the Party's Central Committee on cooperation with the socialist countries. This is how we met.
Fidel produced on me, as on many of my friends, a very strong impression. Probably, one of the factors was the evaluation of his personality, which we had already heard about. He had had a special aura around him since the 1960s. He had been to the Soviet Union before his trip to Voronezh, and we knew about his complicated relations with Nikita Khrushchev, who was then the first secretary of the Party's Central Committee. Their relations were unequivocal. On the one hand, Khrushchev praised him to the skies, but on the other, he took quite a few steps which did harm to Cuba, our relations with it, and its leader...
Q: Could you be more specific?
A: I'm sure you remember the Caribbean crisis in 1962 and its resolution. In addition, our advisers flooded Cuba. They were not very considerate, interfering in Cuba's domestic affairs and imposing their decisions on Cuban experts, decisions which had nothing to do with the established way of life or local traditions. This lasted for quite a long time.
I had to deal with these problems as early as 1979, when I went to Cuba as ambassador. On the eve of my departure, Alexei Kosygin advised me to think about how we ought to develop economic relations. Cuba was growing strong, we could not treat it as an incapable country and impose our decisions on all the problems it was facing. We shouldn't have tried to carry out what we advised. Quite often, our instructions did not correspond to the local climate, Cuban traditions, or the economic situation...
Of course, our consultants were using Soviet experience, but it did not always apply.
Q: What did they advise?
A: They advised, for instance, that Cuba should be fully self-sufficient in food. But this was simply impossible. Cuba cannot grow grain because it's too hot there. What could it do with Russian seeds in a tropical climate? To use a metaphor, on Cuba these seeds immediately fatten up, get sick and rot. My wife and I also tried to grow radishes, lettuce and other vegetables, which we were used to at home, but nothing good came of it. They grow tall, but there are no roots.
Our specialists made many mistakes in land amelioration and construction. On one occasion I had to send a chief adviser home to the U.S.S.R. He was the former deputy chairman of the State Committee for Construction. He had arrived in Cuba with Soviet building standards and rules, which were based on our climate - for dwellings with thick walls, heating and so on... When I asked him why, he said that he was planning to build in the usual way, as he did at home. Naturally, this was expensive, ineffective, and unnecessary for Cuba. But our advisors were not embarrassed in the least.
They did not understand that the Cubans would do much better if they grew sugar cane, sold sugar, and bought grain and all other vegetables they could not cultivate locally, like tomatoes and cucumbers. By the way, those were only on the tables of the elite, which brought them from the U.S. and Canada, while common people ate local products. Cuba's nature is bountiful and allows a diet with vitamins and many other tasty things.
Q: Bananas and pineapples?
A: Bananas and pineapples are the least important. There are many other kinds of fruit in Cuba. I don't remember all the names but papaya and mango are more useful and tasty.
These contradictions were piling up during Khrushchev's rule. He was angry when advisors came back and reported: "We are telling them what to do but they are not listening." They did not listen with good reason. But the approach was the same even when I was there, 10-15 years after Khrushchev.
Talking about my first meeting with Castro in Voronezh, I can say that we were full of admiration for him. People gathered in the streets. Fidel was very different from other foreign visitors in his manners, attitude to people, erudition, curiosity, and even his looks. We went to the aviation plant, which produced the Tu-144, a passenger jet similar to the Concord. By the way, Fidel liked the plane very much. But he is one of those who do not trust words and demand that they be backed by real indicators - economic or political ones.
When we entered the plane and took our seats, and Alexei Tupolev (son of the famous aircraft designer) started talking about the jet's high quality, speed, and comfort, Fidel showered him with specific questions: "What is the flying range? How much fuel does it need? What is its noise level?" Alexei quoted the figures. Fidel took a napkin and started doing calculations. After a while he replied: "No, it doesn't suit us. It's expensive and noisy." Indeed, the jet was very noisy, and this was one of the reasons why it was given up. "Besides, it won't reach Cuba without refueling, and a stopover will make it even more costly. You are hoping to get a range of 6,000 km, but right now it is only 4,000 km. You still have to work on it a lot. But we congratulate you on such an interesting aircraft, and hope that you have enough specialists to make it fly to Cuba without refueling. In that case, we'd buy it."
We then went to the Elektronika plant, where Fidel was particularly interested in all processes linked with semi-conductors.
Q: Is that the plant which produced the first Soviet videotape recorders?
A: It did, but they were of little importance. The plant primarily worked for the military. Later on, its General Director Vladislav Kolesnikov was appointed Minister of the Electronic Industry and retained this position until his death.
We visited the nuclear plant, too. Fidel stuck his nose into every hole, including the reactor of the units under construction. Some units were operational, while others were being put into operation. The workers gave him a very hearty welcome. I still have the photos. Then we went to some sugar beet plantations.
I told him how sugar beet is grown, and how sugar is made from it. He was very surprised that the production technology was so complicated and did not believe that beets may contain as much sugar as cane. The beets were still rather small, but we took some, he cleaned them, tasted, and said: "Indeed, it is sweet. But I don't believe it is 15% sugar." But beetroot is in fact 15% sugar. The problem is that we have to process it rather fast, while they cut their sugar cane and can work on it all year round. There is no rush, whereas we have to do it in two or three months and make quite an effort. As a result, we'll get a yield of merely 11%-12% sugar, which is the average output of sugar cane.
Later on we had lunch. This was also very important, and our Moscow bosses were quite pleased with us. The lunch took place at my dacha, which was helpful. At that time people did not have rich homes as some do now and there was hardly any place where Fidel could stay. I had a three-room house on the banks of the Usmanka, a small river, but it could not accommodate all the guests. We put tables right on a glade in front of the house, and arranged a "small feast." This was in June, the summer of 1972 was very hot and dry...
Q: This was when the turf was burning in the Moscow suburbs...
A: Yes, indeed. Our lunch lasted for about four hours. Kosygin and Fidel had a very interesting and serious conversation. At that time Fidel was leaning strongly towards China. But the situation in China did not give him many opportunities to get help. Alexei Kosygin apologized to Castro for our mistakes in relations with Cuba and explained what opportunities we had for further cooperation. He was very convincing, and Fidel obviously admired him. Kosygin felt the same about Fidel. Later on a resolution of the Party's Central Committee described Castro's trip to Voronezh as very important, interesting, and well organized. I even received an acknowledgement of thanks for it. Up to Kosygin's illness and death, Fidel was asking me when I was in Cuba: "How is Kosygin? How is he doing? What can we do to help him?"
Even at that time, not to mention today, Cuba had very high standards of medical care. When Kosygin died, Fidel sent a long letter to the party Central Committee and to Brezhnev personally, expressing his deep condolences to all of the bereaved relatives and friends, and conveying his heartfelt gratitude for his lavish aid to revolutionary Cuba. This was in 1980.
After the meeting in Voronezh I was promoted to a job in Moscow. In 1975, I was appointed first deputy chairman of the RSFSR Council of Ministers and started working in Moscow. To be honest, it was not easy for me to adapt myself to Moscow traditions. When I worked in Kuibyshev, Samara, and later Voronezh, I was an independent man and did what I saw fit. Of course, there were many problems; I had to coordinate my decisions with my superiors and was responsible for my actions. But this responsibility allowed people who wanted to do something meaningful to show their potential. I'd say that I did really well in Voronezh. For me this was the most fruitful period. In Moscow, everything proved to be much more complicated. But at long last, I got used to it. I'm a mechanical engineer by training, and I started working at a plant at 16. I didn't have a bent for ideological, propaganda, or party work, and I was much better versed in economic matters or bodies of executive authority. Up to this day I don't know whose initiative it was, but in 1979 I was sent to Cuba as ambassador. This was a bolt from the blue. I was told that Fidel remembered his trip to Voronezh, and when he looked at a list of candidates, he asked for my appointment.
I don't quite believe this explanation because at that time I had problems in my relations with the Chairman of the RSFSR Council of Ministers Mikhail Solomentsev, and the Secretary of the CPSU Central Committee Mikhail Suslov, who was also supervising the Foreign Ministry. He talked to me before my departure for Havana. I said: "Why should I go? I'm 53, I'm already old, not very healthy, and the tropical climate won't be good for me." But at that time it was not possible to refuse - if I was told to go, I had to go.
Q: According to the principle: "If the Party says jump, the Komsomol says how high?"
A: Exactly. But I have to say that eventually this proved to be a very good option for me, and Cuba lived through a very interesting period. Working as a diplomat, I gained new and useful experiences. I met not only Fidel and other Cubans, but also foreign diplomats and spokesmen for the department of U.S. interests in Cuba.
Q. But at that time, the United States did not have any diplomatic relations with Cuba.
A: No, and the department of U.S. interests worked at the Swiss Embassy. The Embassy was located in a small house, while the department occupied a huge building on the most prominent place on the coast of the ocean in downtown Havana. It had hundreds if not a thousand of American specialists. True, we were not lagging behind, either.
I got on well both with Fidel and his brother Raul, with whom I made real friends, as well as with other Cuban leaders. I tried to do things that would be interesting and useful for Cuba and for us, of course. I didn't want our interests compromised. I tried to enforce discipline and make sure that we didn't leave a bad impression on Cuban specialists. I traveled a lot about the island, visiting construction sites, plants, and military units. We had about eight to nine thousand specialists in Cuba.
Q: Were they only civilian or also military?
A: Both. We had a big group of army consultants and a military unit. It helped establish the Cuban army, to train officers and men. In effect, Castro's army was a guerilla force. It had heroic exploits to its credit, but it also committed many mistakes during the hostilities in the late 1950s.
(to be continued)