I Once Met Fidel Castro Iain Leg­gatt

The Oldie - - CONTENTS - Iain Leg­gatt

From 1971 to 1974 I was re­moved from my nor­mal mil­i­tary du­ties to com­plete a stint as the as­sis­tant naval & as­sis­tant mil­i­tary at­taché at the Bri­tish Em­bassy in Bucharest. The de­fence at­taché was a lieu­tenant colonel and I had a fur­ther ti­tle as as­sis­tant to the de­fence at­taché. There were fre­quent vis­its to the Ro­ma­nian So­cial­ist Repub­lic by both po­lit­i­cal and mil­i­tary dig­ni­taries, and the twenty or so mil­i­tary at­tachés were re­garded as a kind of mil­i­tary rent-acrowd to be in­vited to greet im­por­tant visi­tors on ar­rival at the air­port by stand­ing in lines for him or her to look at. Fur­ther in­vi­ta­tions would be forth­com­ing for at­tachés to at­tend re­cep­tions, cock­tail parties and sundry other func­tions. In 1972 one such vis­i­tor was the pres­i­dent of Cuba, Fidel Castro.

Castro was vis­it­ing on a com­merce and trade mis­sion, rather than purely as head of state, but he had the full wel­come mat, and a for­mal func­tion to cel­e­brate his visit was held at the Coun­cil of Min­is­ters. In view of my as­sis­tant at­taché sta­tus, I would not nor­mally have gone but my de­fence at­taché told me to at­tend in his stead. As it was a for­mal func­tion, No 1 Dress was re­quired but when I ar­rived I was sur­prised to find that the only mil­i­tary at­tachés in at­ten­dance were War­saw Pact, from the Soviet Union, Bul­garia, Cze­choslo­vakia, East Ger­many, Hun­gary and Poland. We at­tachés were lined up, with me, the most ju­nior, on the ex­treme left. The great man ar­rived and was in­vited to ‘in­spect’ the line-up. Fidel Castro, ac­com­pa­nied by a Span­ish-speak­ing Ro­ma­nian army of­fi­cer from the for­eign li­ai­son sec­tion of the Min­istry of the Armed Forces, moved briskly down the line, shak­ing the hand of each but en­ter­ing into no di­a­logue, not even with the first, Colonel Musatov of the Soviet Union. How­ever, when he came to me he stopped, held his hands up and said in English: ‘But what rank are you? What is your Arm of Ser­vice? Are you Army? Navy? What?’ I replied that I was a war­rant of­fi­cer 2nd class in the Bri­tish Army and in­di­cated my gold and sil­ver wire badge of rank low on my right sleeve. Two months be­fore, at the gar­den party given by the Bri­tish am­bas­sador, Der­ick Ashe, for all Bri­tish em­bassy staff, in cel­e­bra­tion of Her Majesty’s birth­day, Ashe had pre­sented me with the Long Ser­vice and Good Con­duct Medal and this was my first op­por­tu­nity to wear it. Fidel stepped closer, said to me ‘And you have a fine medal’, and, hav­ing seen the monarch’s face on the front, ‘a QUEEN’S medal!’ He put his fingers un­der the medal, tapped it and ex­claimed, ‘A Queen’s SIL­VER medal!’ He then shook my hand and, still hold­ing onto it, with an evil grin put his mouth close to my ear and said very qui­etly, ‘Thank you for the buses!’

For some years a naval block­ade of Cuba had been main­tained by the US, with war­ships cir­cling the is­land and send­ing any freighters with im­ports away. Near the end of Harold Wil­son’s 1964–1970 term as prime min­is­ter he’d put a fleet of re­dun­dant red dou­bledecker Lon­don buses on a cou­ple of Bri­tish mer­chant ships and sent them to Cuba to test out the Amer­i­cans’ re­solve. Would they stop Bri­tish ships? No, they didn’t, and I was chuffed to be thanked by Pres­i­dent Castro, al­though I have often won­dered if Premier Wil­son had ever had a thank-you note.

Fidel Castro in 1959

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