The last-minute meeting with the Cuban leader was a gesture to India, says Hamid Ansari

During a meeting that was eagerly sought by India, and confirmed by Cuba only on the very last day, Vice-President Hamid Ansari and the former Cuban President, Fidel Castro, now a semi-recluse who spends most of his active time in horticulture and rarely meets foreign visitors, discussed a wide range of issues of mutual interest.

That the meeting would indeed take place was conveyed to the Indian delegation only on the morning of Wednesday, hours before Mr. Ansari was scheduled to conclude his two-day official visit. Not surprisingly, the Vice-President saw the meeting itself as a “gesture to India” by Cuba.

Talking to Indian reporters accompanying him on board the special aircraft, Mr. Ansari noted that Mr. Castro no longer participated in public life, and that the Cuban side wanted to make it clear that the meeting was meant to be a “social” event, and not an official engagement.

Mr. Castro, however, took the opportunity to express concern at the large arsenal of nuclear weapons in the world and spoke of his fear that an accident could destroy the world, an accident that was waiting to happen. The United States, he told Mr. Ansari, once accidentally dropped a bomb on its own soil, but mercifully, it did not explode.

Asked if the issue of the sanctions imposed by the United States on Cuba came up during the meeting, and whether India could help ease the effects of the sanctions, Mr. Ansari said India had voted in the United Nations against the continuance of the sanctions. The sanctions, he pointed out, were unilaterally imposed by the United States, and were not U.N. sanctions. They had the support of only Israel, besides the U.S. There was no ambiguity in India’s stand on this issue. “The U.S. knows our stand.”

The U.N., he said, must focus on the development agenda, and not be sidetracked.

Although Mr. Castro, Mr. Ansari said, was an old man now, he was still in good shape. The broad framework of his views had not changed over the years, and he still stood for the same values.

The former Cuban president still remembered his Indian friends and recalled his various visits to India, during the meeting, which went on for 65 minutes.

Mr. Ansari had a separate meeting with Cuban President Raul Castro Ruz, brother of Mr. Castro. “The brothers coordinate their views closely,” the Vice-President said, dismissing any suggestion there were differences in perception between the two.

Earlier, during a meeting with the First Vice-President of the Council of State of Cuba, Miguel Diaz-Canel Bermudez, the designated successor to Mr. Ruz, Mr. Ansari reiterated the value attached by India to its relations with Cuba and spoke of sustaining the relationship and taking it to a higher level. An area of cooperation identified was the health sector, where the Cubans had taken initiatives that were unique. In immunology, the Cubans, on their own, had achieved remarkable progress, Mr. Ansari said. They also had a successful public health programme.

Both Cuba and India underscored the importance of the Non-Aligned Movement and South-South cooperation.

India would be supplying 50 buses to Cuba; while 25 of these would be delivered in the first half of next year, the remaining would be delivered in the latter half, the Vice-President said.

Summing up his Peru visit, Mr. Ansari said institutional structures to further bilateral relations had now been put in place. The two sides had agreed on cooperation in defence and multilateral platforms.