How Fidel Castro twice gave umbrage to Georgians
Only a few people outside Georgia, mainly fellow revolutionaries, historians or biographers may remember that the late Fidel Castro visited Georgia in 1963, back then one of the Soviet Republics.
During his lengthy, 40-day trip throughout the Soviet Union, El Comandante was accompanied by Nikita Khrushchev himself – the First Secretary of the Communist Party of the USSR. This allowed Fidel Castro to experience firsthand the legendary hospitality of Georgian people on several feasting occasions specifically dedicated in honor of the Cuban leader’s sojourn.
Taking great pride in their guest-fêting tradition, Georgians welcomed with a dizzying array of culinary masterpieces hordes of delegations headed by two prominent personalities of the communist world. Roughly half a year before both had contemplated the use of nuclear bombs against their common ideological adversary – the United States of America. As usual, Georgian feasts, locally called supra, went with toasting ceremonies made with a stream of tasty local wines.
It is worth noting here upfront that wine-drinking tradition is akin to religious ritual in the South Caucasian nation, which also boasts to be the world’s cradle of wine. According to habit, while feasting with Georgians guests find it extraordinarily difficult to get away without guzzling two or three glasses of wine. No excuses are accepted unless it is for medical reasons.
At one such a supra, after raising a toast to harangue close relationship between Cuba and the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev downed an animal horn full of wine in one gulp. While Fidel Castro, un-forewarned about local cultural nuances and obviously because of the terrible blunder of his chief of protocol, took only a sip from the proposed horn and inadvertently poured the rest down on the ground. Such an unexpected turn of the event, and outrages abuse of hospitality by the guest, caught not only the hosts but also the Soviet leader off guard with grimaces of discontent on their faces. However, Nikita Khrushchev, to his credit, acted instantaneously to get over such a serious faux pas.Handing back the refilled horn to Castro followed by some enlightenment in local intricacies, Nikita Khrushchev, himself a big binge lover, coaxed his Cuban protégé into emptying an oversized wine vessel to the delight of their somber hosts.
Second time when Fidel Castro provoked the ire of Georgians was in 2008, when he directed explicit accusations at the Georgian government for attacking the country‘s breakaway region of South Ossetia first. Thus, he promoted word-by-word the Russian narrative of the Georgia-Russia war during the interview given to the Mexican TV channel also reported by the Russian TV channel Vesti 24 for its viewers. Later on, the same propaganda line appeared in his yet another weighty book Reflections by Fidel. Furthermore, the already retired Cuban politician in his traditional Castroian fashion filled with anti-American pathos pointed the finger directly at the US president George W. Bush and insisted that without his encouragement Georgia would not have initiated a conflict against Russia.
Oddly enough yet somewhat amusingly, only the cultural incident of Castro which happened more than a half century ago carved into the memory of Georgians, whereas his recent politically-charged critical statement on the Russia-Georgia war did not garner as much attention in Tbilisi.
Of course, one of the main reasons which can explain such discrepancies, or Georgians’ selective absent-mindedness, on the political comment is the official position of the Cuban government with regard to statuses of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Contrary to all expectations based on a longstanding, unflinching loyalty to the Kremlin, Cuba did not succumb to the alleged pressure from Russia to join Nicaragua and Venezuela. Unlike its ideologically kindred states in the Bolivarian Alliance ALBA, Havana opted for non-recognition both separatist entities as independent states.
Hence, it is no wonder that the incumbent president of Georgia Giorgi Margvelashvili felt beholden to Cuba’s resistibility and extended condolences to the bereaved family. Moreover, despite a highly controversial legacy Fidel Castro left behind him, the president nevertheless emphasised in an official note: “I truly believe that his extraordinary legacy will leave a remarkable trace in the history of Cuba and the entire world”.
It was by no means an excessive praise but tactfully justified gesture in line with national interests of Georgia. This is hardly surprising because Georgia cannot afford the luxury of complacency and take Cuba’s non-recognition policy for granted especially when aggressive Russia is actively engaged in mobilising international support for its revisionist strategy.
Shalva Dzidziguri is a member of NATO’s Future Alumni Network. He worked for the NATO Parliamentary Assembly in Brussels, as a Partnership for Peace (PfP) Research Fellow at the NATO Defense College in Rome and at the Georgian Mission to the OSCE in Vienna. As a Georgian Army Peacekeeper, he spent seven months in Baqubah, Iraq (2004 – 2005) and was awarded the Certificate of Appreciation for Noble and Meritorious Service in Peacekeeping Operations in Iraq. Shalva is an alumnus of the Young Atlanticist Working Group at the Atlantic Council in the United States and holds an M.A. from the Central European University focusing on International Relations and European Studies.