The Tito – Castro Split and the End of Cigar Socialism

On Fidel Castro, Tito and the death of cigar socialism.

Fidel Castro and Tito were both larger-than-life socialist leaders famous for their love of thick cigars – ironically a symbol of material frivolity and fat cat capitalism. Fidel finally died over the weekend, and old photos of the leaders of Cuba and Yugoslavia smoking cigars have been shared on social media in memoriam. Superficially, these images seem to suggest that Castro and Tito were ideological soul mates, two cigar socialists united by their preoccupation with a prop Freud frequently described as phallic and representative of the raw masculine power of the 20th century partisan warrior.

But props and pleasures aside, the leaders’ politics were quite different. At the end of Tito’s life, the two heads of state were locked in a battle over the future course of the nonaligned movement. Many people may have heard something about the Tito-Stalin split of 1948; fewer are likely to have heard about the deterioration of Tito and Castro’s relationship in the months before Tito’s death in 1980.

Tito’s last major public appearance was with Fidel Castro in Havana. Cuba had been chosen to host the sixth summit of the nonaligned movement, the anti-colonial Cold War alliance formed largely on Tito’s initiative in 1961. The Havana summit was held in September 1979 amid mounting concerns over Moscow’s alleged meddling and expansionist policies in the nonaligned countries.

Castro and Tito had two opposing and fundamentally incompatible visions for the movement’s future. Tito saw nonalignment as an absolute “bloc-free” concept, in which member countries should be genuinely independent of both the west and the Soviet Union. But Castro wanted the alliance to adopt a more radical pro-Kremlin approach and advocated for the embrace of what he called “natural allies” in the Soviet bloc. Castro vowed to use his chairmanship of the summit to push for “positive nonalignment”, or a more overtly pro-Soviet path. Tito traveled to nonaligned countries throughout Asia and Africa during the last year of his life in an attempt to prevent this from ever happening. He and his allies in the west worried that the Russians would find a way to destabilize Yugoslavia, by dividing the nonaligned countries into factions or by transforming the movement into an instrument of Soviet foreign policy.

An article published in the New York Times on September 2nd, 1979 makes it clear just how important the Havana summit was seen at the time: “The meaning of nonalignment is at stake, and the definition will determine how the movement, which seemed to give so much strength to those who felt so helpless, will survive in the new landscape of power.”

The fallout from the conference seemed to portend doom. “[Yugoslav leaders] sense that despite the brave public words about the Havana nonaligned summit, that Yugoslav influence in the nonaligned world may have begun a slow decline,” one grim report by Radio Free Europe read. The nonaligned movement is often maligned as little more than a dictator’s club, but it also defined Yugoslavia’s entire foreign policy, and was an integral part of the country’s unifying political philosophy.

Tito entered the hospital just three months after he left Havana. First one of his legs was amputated, and then he slipped into a coma. In December, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan — a nonaligned country. Castro lost credibility with other members of the nonaligned movement when he refused to condemn the military action. Finally, four months after the tense summit in Cuba, Tito died.

Castro was one of a handful of major world leaders who did not attend Tito’s massive state funeral in May of 1980. He went on to survive 634 assassination attempts and live another 36 years. Yugoslavia would only last a little over a decade. In the end, the country didn’t need any meddling from Moscow to self-destruct.

The nonaligned movement still exists today, albeit in a far less potent form than that envisioned by either Tito or Castro back when the Soviet Union still existed as a superpower to align with or against.

In an essay about Castro’s death, writer Sam Kriss suggested that “grand socialism – epic, mythic, heroic — died with Fidel Castro.” But he also acknowledged that this might be for the best, since “epic socialism had its excesses… [and] maybe it no longer makes sense to have our movements led by grand cigar-chewers.”


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Lily Lynch

Lily is co-founder and editor-in-chief of Balkanist Magazine. She lives in Belgrade, Serbia.