I Once Met Fidel Castro 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