CUBA without FIDEL
Fidel Castro's Cuba full of his offspring after years of womanising by El Commandante
Fidel Castro, Cuba's long-standing dictator, has fathered at least 10 children by a string of women, according to a new book.
By Philip Hart
Published: 8:36PM BST 26 Sep 2009
Fidel Castro is renowned in Cuba for his verbosity and longevity. But his long-suffering compatriots know little about another sphere where El Commandante has proved prolific - his private life.
Discussing his womanising ways is strictly taboo on the Caribbean communist outpost, even on an island where the gossip grapevine flourishes in the absence of a free press.
But a long-time Cuba-watcher has now revealed the scale of his philandering and the existence of at least 10 offspring. That is more than previously believed - but very possibly not the full tally.
When journalist Ann Louise Bardach asked Castro how many children he had during an interview with Vanity Fair in 1993, he smiled and answered "almost a tribe".
During the research for Without Fidel, her new book chronicling the lives of Castro and his brother, Raul, to be published by Scribner, she discovered how true that observation was.
Castro, now 83, was a dashing young man whose good looks and rebel swagger clearly leant him a strong sexual allure during the years before and after the 1959 revolution. Indeed, media reports describe female fans swooning after he arrived triumphantly in Havana and during early trips to the US.
He had one child, Fidelito (Little Fidel), with his first wife Myrta Diaz-Balart in 1949 and five boys between 1962 and 1974 with Dalia Soto del Valle, a little-seen companion whom he is said to have secretly married in 1980. Remarkably, she was first shown on Cuban television in 2003 - "so forbidden" was Castro's personal domain, Ms Bardach observes.
But there have been many more paramours and several other children along the way - most notably from the time when the 29-year-year old rebel leader celebrated his release from prison in 1955 for a failed uprising.
For three Castro offspring were born to three women during 1956. Most famously, there was Natalia Revuelta, an aristocratic beauty who became a fierce defender of his revolution - she bore him a daughter, Alina Fernandez.
Ms Bardach, an investigative journalist and a member of the Cuba Study Group at the Brookings Institution think-tank, had previously reported the existence of another illegitimate 1956 child, Panchita Pupo. She was not even known to his other offspring and her mother remains unidentified.
And in this book, she reveals the identity of the mother of Jorge Angel, the third Castro child of 1956 - Maria Laborde, an admirer who Castro met just after was he freed.
She also discloses another apparent addition to the brood - a son known as Ciro, the early 1960s product of another brief fling. He was previously unknown outside the family inner circle, but a close relative of Celia Sanchez, Castro's closest confidante and yet another rumoured lover, revealed his existence to the author.
Ciro, named after a revolutionary martyr and whose mother's name is still secret, is said to have "movie star looks", with green eyes and dark complexion. He went into sports medicine after studying physical education at college, married a minor party official and lives in a Havana suburb where nobody knows his provenance.
And if claims made earlier this year by a Cuban intelligence defector that he sired another son in 1970 are true, that would take the count to 11 children by seven women - and counting.
Castro's first name is derived from the Latin for "faithful", but while he has remained true to his politics, the same cannot be said of the women in his life. His offspring have however largely adhered to their father's instructions not to flaunt their privileged backgrounds and are rarely seen in public, His first son, Fidelito, has received the highest prominence. But when he mishandled the country's nuclear power programme, his father ordered his dismissal. "He was fired for incompetence," Castro said. "We don't have a monarchy here."
Many Cubans would, however, disagree with the last point - and with good reason. After the crippling intestinal disease of diverticulitis nearly killed him in 2006, Fidel's brother Raul was anointed to replace him. The younger Castro was confirmed as president last year in a handover which appeared almost feudal.
Ms Bardach predicts that the most likely member of the family's next generation to emerge as a future leader is Raul's son, Alejandro, 43, a colonel and rising star in the powerful interior ministry. The book also discloses the explosive inside story of how Raul Castro purged two close lieutenants of his older brother. Carlos Lage, the economics czar, and Felipe Perez Roque, the foreign minister, had both been considered possible future leaders, but were ousted after a year-long surveillance operation.
In classic old communist style, the two men were forced to write mea culpas for political sins which are still unclear. Raul, the veteran defence minister, has moved allies from the armed forces into virtually all areas of government and the economy - apparently inspired by the commercial success of the People's Liberation Army in China.
And Ms Bardach reveals that Fidel Castro's pride and obstinacy almost proved fatal when he rejected the recommended surgery in 2006 - a colostomy. Castro insisted on a much riskier operation as he did not want to suffer the perceived indignity of living with an attached bag.
The bolder procedure failed and Castro was nearly killed by a peritonitis infection as a result. After a life-saving colostomy was finally performed, Ms Bardach reports that Castro was distraught. "Fidel was crying," a source present in the hospital told her. "He cried several times that day. He was devastated."
From her contacts within the Cuban medical system, she also learns that Castro was fed intravenously for five months after the surgery and lost 45 pounds. A Spanish doctor brought in to treat him feared he was "starving to death" and gradually restored solid foods to a highly restrictive diet.
In his occasional photo shoots with visiting left-wing Latin American proteges, Castro has abandoned his old uniform of olive fatigues.
Instead, he opts for garish track suits because they hide the hated colostomy bag - emblematic of his transformation from hirsute heart-throb to frail octogenarian.
Sep 17, 2009
The Day Castro Wept
Ann Louise Bardach
•Castro does not have colon cancer, as was rumored, but “malignant diverticulitis,” which can be an equally dangerous illness.
•In July 2006, Castro rejected the recommended surgery and insisted on a riskier, more radical surgery that failed, almost costing him his life.
•When a second, life-saving surgery necessitated a colostomy, he wept.
•Castro’s son Antonio told friends in 2006, “What my old man has is insurmontable.”
•Around the time of these surgeries, according to a prominent Swiss banker, some of Cuba’s accounts were transferred to an undisclosed signatory, most likely Raul Castro.
•For five months after the surgeries, Castro was fed intravenously and lost 45 pounds. He has since stabilized with the help of a highly restrictive diet and the use of a state-of-the-art hyperbaric oxygen chamber.
•In one of his frequent opinion columns for Granma, Castro wrote in late 2008 that he did not expect to live to see the end of Obama’s term.
The dying began on July 27, 2006—and it has yet to end. Certainly, it would have been hard to imagine a final coda less appealing to Fidel Castro—a proud and prudish man who has zealously guarded his personal privacy. For Castro, an obsessive autocrat and micro-manager, nothing could have been more distressing than to see details of his emergency intestinal surgery splayed across the front pages of newspapers and Web sites five months later. For the first time, Fidel Castro had been sidelined as the master of his own fate. A new portrait—that of a frail octogenarian clinging to life—supplanted his carefully crafted persona of the vigilant warrior.
But as befitted a movie-star dictator—and the world’s longest-reigning head of state—Castro would take his time leaving the stage. That exit, with periodic finales, is fated to be a marathon: an epic that one might be tempted to call The Fideliad.
On July 26, 2006, Castro had participated in the usual anniversary celebrations of the Cuban Revolution. But as the day wore on, El Comandante was visibly piqued and coughing, in crippling pain. “I thought that would be the end of it,” he later reflected. Hours later, he was flown back to Havana and rushed to Cuba’s foremost medical facility. A week earlier in Argentina, Castro had sparred with a Cuban-American reporter who questioned him about a dissident denied a visa to leave Cuba. An enraged Castro had erupted into a lightning tirade, captured on videotape.
After he fell ill, one source close to Castro’s doctors speculated that the stressful encounter had precipitated a furious new bout of diverticulitis. This painful, recurrent intestinal infection had dogged Castro since the 1970s and reportedly first required surgery in the 1980s. Diverticulosis is a relatively common symptom of aging characterized by outpouchings—or diverticula—in the lining of the colon or large intestine. When the diverticula become infected, bleed or rupture, the so-called diverticulitis can be exceedingly painful and potentially life threatening.
Castro almost certainly suffered from the most severe variant of this disease, known in some medical circles as “malignant diverticulitis.” It is not technically cancer, but it often has a similar progression, with comparable mortality rates. “This form of the disease pursues a relentless course of chronic sepsis, recurrent fistulization and eventual death due to one or more complications of the disease,” according to one medical paper written on the subject. Castro’s handlers could truthfully deny the persistent rumor that he had colon cancer, yet his illness, which cascaded into multiple complications, was equally challenging.
For three days in July 2006, the news blackout was in eerie counterpoint to the squads of government officials seen scurrying between the offices of the Central Committee of the Communist Party and the Palace of the Revolution. On July 28, Castro’s primary-care physician—accompanied by state security officals—was seen rushing into the palace. The unsettling silence broke dramatically on July 31, when the nightly newscast cut away to Castro’s faithful personal assistant (since sidelined) Carlos Valenciaga. He read a prepared statement, purportedly written by Fidel, that said he had undergone “an acute intestinal crisis with sustained bleeding that has obliged me to undergo a complicated surgical operation.” The missive went on to declare a temporary transfer of power to to his 75-year-old brother, Raúl, the head of the Armed Forces.
Many among the elite, chattering class of Havana, known as the nomenklatura, were convinced that the Comandante had met his maker. They were not alone. A prominent Geneva banker on the board of the banking behemoth UBS, with firsthand knowledge of Cuba’s numbered Swiss bank accounts, was likewise convinced that Castro had died. Some of Cuba’s funds have long been handled by the Geneva branch of Handelsfinanz—later bought by HSBC Guyerzeller. “He’s a cadaver,” the banker told a confidant, noting that government funds, controlled by Castro, had been transferred, presumably to his brother Raúl, during the final days of July 2006.
Miguel Brugeras, who had served as Cuba’s ambassador to Lebanon, Argentina, and Panama, was among those allowed to visit with Castro in those early weeks. A devout fidelista, Brugeras told close friends that “Fidel will not recover from this.” Castro did not have cancer, he said, but his condition was nonetheless “terminal.” (Ironically, Brugeras would die within the year, while Castro soldiered on from his hospital suite.)
In Havana, rumors of Fidel’s passing were quelled only when two of his sons showed up in mid-August 2006 at a high-profile party for a well-known artist. Not long after, his son Antonio Castro, an orthopedic surgeon who heads up Cuba’s national baseball league and who is the personal doctor for his uncle Raul, thanked a colleague for his condolences, adding sadly, “Lo que el Viejo tiene—es fulminante.” “What my old man has—is insurmountable.”
By late October 2006, rumors that Fidel had slipped from his mortal coil were so pervasive that the government arranged for taped footage of a frail Castro to be shown on television. Family members fretted to trusted friends that he had dropped more than 45 pounds and was still not able to sit up or eat solid food.
Then quite suddenly, the hermetically sealed bubble around Castro was punctured. On Christmas Eve 2006, a Barcelona newspaper broke the story of a secret trip to Havana by Spanish surgeon José Luis García Sabrido, a colon-cancer specialist who had previously treated Castro. Three weeks later, on January 16, 2007, the Spanish daily El País published a bombshell account of Castro’s condition based on two medical sources who worked at the same hospital as Dr. García Sabrido. It reported that in July Castro had barely survived three bungled intestinal surgeries and suffered two bouts of peritonitis, a potentially life-threatening infection.
As it turned out, Castro’s medical crisis had been largely one of his own making. Typically, a patient with Castro’s history of chronic and acute diverticulitis would have a colostomy, which involves cutting out the infected segments of intestine, and then attaching an external bag to the patient. Once the patient has fully recovered, a second surgery is necessary to reconnect the intestines.
But Castro nixed having a colostomy, perhaps out of pride, machismo, or hubris—or some combination of the three. Hoping to avoid a second surgery, he decided upon a far bolder operation. Despite warnings of the risk involved, Castro opted for a surgery in which infected portions of the colon were removed and the colon was reconnected at the same time. Under these circumstances, “attempted resection is fraught with difficulty,” warned a 1998 report by Leon Morgenstern, formerly chief of surgery at Cedars Sinai Medical Center, “and a potentially lethal outcome.” Castro’s surgeons knew this, but their patient had his own ideas. “No one could tell him no,” said a trusted friend of Castro’s, who was present at the discussions. “He would not listen to anyone because he could not bear the idea of it [the external colostomy bag].”
The shortcut—in which the colon was attached to the rectum—ruptured, leaking fecal material and causing peritonitis. An emergency second surgery was necessary. But then matters went from bad to worse. While attaching a colostomy bag, surgeons saw that Castro’s gall bladder had become gangrenous, requiring a tube to drain the toxic material. The drainage tube to the bilary duct, which connected the intestines to the gall bladder, also failed. Yet another surgery was urgently needed to insert a second drain. Castro was leaking more than a pint of fluid a day.
One UCLA colon specialist said he was not surprised by such a grim outcome: “The sepsis, lack of nutrition and systemic stress of [a failed surgery followed by peritonitis] can be quite devastating, even lethal,” he said. After a life-saving colostomy was performed, Castro was deeply distraught. “Fidel was crying,” said a source who was present in the hospital. “He cried several times that first day. He was devastated.” Castro may well have been put on dialysis, as kidney failure is not uncommon in such surgical mishaps.
For the next five months, Castro was fed intravenously. When Dr. García Sabrido arrived in December 2006, he found that “Castro was starving to death,” said documentary filmmaker Saul Landau, who spoke with a knowledgeable medical source while in Havana. “They had been feeding him only intravenously and not giving him food.” Solid food was then reintroduced into Castro’s diet and he slowly began to show signs of improvement.
Seeking to defuse rumors of the Maximum Leader’s precipitous decline, a TV segment of Hugo Chavez visiting his hospital room was arranged. Castro wore his post-operative uniform—a blousy red, white, and blue track suit that replaced his army fatigues and had the added advantage of concealing a colostomy bag. This pattern of periodic photo-ops for the convalescent in chief has continued to the present, although no live footage has been shown to date.
Castro would slide from view for weeks or months until the percolation of rumors roared to a fierce bubbling. Then, poof! he would reappear to receive the embrace of visiting sympathetic foreign leader such as Chavez, Brazil’s President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, or Bolivia’s President Evo Morales.
Castro also began to work the phones at odd times of the day and night, prompting some surprised recipients to refer to him as El Fantasma—The Ghost. One Castro friend who visited him often credited the Comandante’s recovery to his use of a hyperbaric oxygen chamber: three to four times daily, said the friend, for one-hour intervals.
In January 2009, as he had so fervently hoped, Castro had lived to see the golden anniversary of the revolution he had brought to Cuba. In the spring of 2009, a seemingly rejuvenated Castro began spending more time at his Siboney home, where his doctors had created a state-of-the-art medical suite. Over the next few months, there would be the occasional sighting of Castro and his security detail around his neighborhood or near Havana’s VIP hospital, where he visited presumably for maintenance of his colostomy apparatus and possibly to have dialysis.
A few carefully selected guests were invited to visit him at his home. Three members of the Congressional Black Caucus had one such visit in April 2009, greeted by Castro’s spouse, Dalia Soto Del Valle. Rep. Bobby Rush said his group was enchanted by the Cuban leader, who remained seated during their two-hour chat. He described Castro as speaking with the trio “as though we were old family members.” When it was time for them to leave, Rush said, “he was very careful and deliberate when he stood up.”
At the end of August, Castro spent an afternoon with director Oliver Stone, who has filmed two sunny documentaries about the Cuban ruler for life. The Caracas-based Telesur announced last week that it will broadcast, “very soon,” a new interview with Castro by Stone; meanwhile, a Cuban government Web site said the program would show Castro “in an excellent state of health.” Stone was surprised by the announcement, according to his assistant, who emphasized that Stone “owns” the three hours of footage, which he plans to make into a documentary. “They wanted to do a Barbara Walters-type thing,” he said, referring to Walters’ flattering interview with Castro. “But we are in complete control of the footage,” adding that Stone “had not begun editing,” but hoped to have his film done by the end of the year or early next year.
Since March 2007, the Maximum Leader had been writing a “Reflections” column for the state-run daily, Granma. In staccato bursts, he has published scores of essays on topics great and small—from fulminations against George W. Bush to the pressing need to replace incandescent light bulbs with fluorescent.
In late 2008, Castro penned a favorable review of the new American president, and concluded the column on a note of somber candor. Seeking to explain his absence from the scene, he wrote that “I am well but, I insist, none of [my comrades] should feel constrained by my occasional Reflections, the gravity of my health, or my death.”
He offered further introspection. “I have had the rare privilege of observing events for a very long time. I receive information and I calmly ponder the events.” Castro then made his first public acknowledgement of the seriousness of his illness, notwithstanding his recent much-touted recovery. “I do not expect I shall enjoy such a privilege four years from now—when President Obama’s first term has concluded.”
Ann Louise Bardach is author of Without Fidel: A Death Foretold in Miami, Havana and Washington and the acclaimed Cuba Confidential: Love and Vengeance in Miami and Havana. She is a PEN/USA award winning reporter and was a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and has written for The New York Times, Washington Post Outlook, Los Angeles Times, and The Atlantic. She has appeared on 60 Minutes, Today, and CNN, among others.
Sep 20, 2009
Castro Family Values
Ann Louise Bardach
Gossip is the national pastime of Cuba, followed by baseball and sex (although the order could well be reversed). However, speaking out of turn about Castro’s personal life guarantees banishment. “He was always very private and reserved about his personal life,” his sister Juanita told me in 2002. "The personali[ties] of Fidel and my father are very similar.” Castro’s private life is so forbidden that it was not until 2003 that state-run television offered its first glimpse of Dalia Soto del Valle, Castro’s spouse and the mother of five of his sons—just after Talk magazine mentioned her decades of being off-camera. An unparalleled master of media and public relations, Castro reads every news item about him and his country and responds accordingly.
I learned firsthand the degree of Castro’s sensitivity when I got the boot at Jose Marti Airport in Havana last year when I arrived for a visit. A senior official explained the reason a few months later. “Fidel no le gusto su libro,” he told a mutual friend. “Fidel did not like her book,” he said, referring to Cuba Confidential. Curiously, Castro was disturbed not so much about its political content, he said, but rather by some revelations in a chapter entitled Castro Family Values. “Porque unas cosas personales,” the official said. “Because of the personal things.” What is standard-issue public information for any other Western leader, is decidely off-limits in Cuba.
Castro had a fraught relationship with his father, Ángel Castro, who had come to Oriente, Cuba, as a young conscript to fight for Spain. The rough-hewn Ángel stayed on, and through his ceaseless labors farming sugar cane became one of the largest landowners in Holguin province, amassing a 30,000-acre spread, including forests, a sawmill, and a nickel mine.
Ángel was as hard-living as he was hard-working; it was not long before his eye alighted on his teenaged housekeeper, the spirited Lina Ruz, while he was married to María Argota, the mother of his first two children. Ángel had seven children with Lina, Fidel being the third, before he married her.
Infidelity is as Cuban as sugar cane, and for several years Ángel Castro juggled two families. For a period, both families lived on the vast grounds of Ángel’s hacienda, with Lina’s children raised in a casita—a small house—on the grounds. According to Fidel, his father, like his mother, did not become fully literate until adulthood. In one letter written in 1948, Fidel reminds his father that “you must place a postage stamp on the letter,” adding how and where to write him: “My address is above on the left-hand side.”
There were also occasional trysts for Ángel that produced at least one other son, as first reported by the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. Castro has a half-brother, Martin, four years younger than him (and two years older than Raul), who is the son of a young farmhand who worked for Don Ángel. Today, the amiable Martin lives where he was born—down the road from the Castro family finca in Birán.
“The dirty little secret of old Oriente,” said Manzanillo native Eduardo Santiago, “was multiple marriages, or what others would call common law marriage or even polygamy.” In the countryside during the first half of the 20th century—the query “como esta la mujer?” or “How is your wife?” was sometimes answered with another query: “Cual de ellas?” or “Which one?”
Fidel Castro would follow a similar pattern as his father: marrying two women, the latter after the birth of five sons—while navigating through scores of lesser liaisons and a few illegitimate sires. When I asked Castro in a 1993 interview I did with him for Vanity Fair how many children he had, he demurred. Then, with a cryptic smile, he said, “casi un tribo”—almost a tribe. He was not dissembling. All together, he had at least nine children, mostly sons. Along with his eldest, Fidelito, born to his first wife, Myrta Diaz-Balart, and his five sons with Soto del Valle, Castro fathered at least three other children, the offspring of several infatuations.
Castro reportedly did not marry Dalia Soto del Valle until 1980. Indeed, some in the nomenklatura claim that Castro never married Dalia. “That’s why she is called la mujer de Fidel [Fidel’s woman],” observed writer Achy Obejas, “never la esposa [the wife]. Remember the important thing in Cuban culture is to be wife No. 1,” not the second or third wife.
Bizarrely, all five of Dalia’s sons with Fidel were given names beginning with the letter A. The three eldest, in a blaze of narcissism, were named with variations on Fidel’s revolutionary nom de guerre, Alejandro, Castro’s tribute and obsession with Alexander the Great. Alexis, born in 1962, was followed by Alexander in 1963, then Antonio, who's now an orthopedic surgeon, born in 1969. The two youngest are Alejandro and Ángel, named for Castro’s father.
While not a fulsomely affectionate father, Castro met his obligations and kept an eye—however distant—on his ever-growing clan. He attended financially to all his children and saw to it that they had providential opportunities. However, he has a low threshhold for ostentatious displays of privilege, conspicuous consumption, and negligence. When Fidelito mishandled Cuba’s nuclear-power program, Castro had him fired. “There was no resignation,” Castro responded when queried about the matter. “He was fired for incompetence. We don’t have a monarchy here.”
On another occasion, he turned his fury on his son Alejandro. In the early '90s, Castro had re-introduced tourism but had ordered that hotels be off-limits to Cubans. When he discovered that Alejandro had accepted an invitation from European friends to stay in a hotel in Varadero, Castro had the hotel’s manager fired. According to Alejandro’s former wife, who later moved to Spain, the son was so distressed by the incident that he moved out of the Castro family compound, Punto Cero.
Fidel Castro fathered another son with an admirer named María Laborde, whom he met soon after his release from prison in 1955. Jorge Angel Castro Laborde, born in 1956, is by all accounts, an affable, unassuming fellow with several children of his own.
There have been other children cited as Fidel offspring—all unconfirmed by the government or Castro. According to relatives of Celia Sanchez, Fidel’s closest confidante until her death in 1980, another Castro son was born in the early 1960s, the offspring of a brief affair. The child was again named Alejandro, but perhaps to differentiate him from Dalia’s brood, he was nicknamed Ciro for Ciro Redondo, a revered revolutionary martyr. One friend who attended school with him described Ciro as having "movie-star good looks" with vivid, green eyes and a complexion darker than the other Castro siblings. As a young man, he went into sports medicine after studying physical education, married a minor official in Cuban tourism in the mid-1980s, and settled into a comfortable two-story home, west of Miramar.
In 2007, a Cuban intelligence defector appeared on a Miami television program and proclaimed that Castro fathered a child with the wife of an important government official. According to the defector, Roxana Rodriguez, the wife of Abraham Masiques, had a son named Fito born around 1970, who was, in fact, Castro's child.
In 2002, Juanita Castro told me that Fidel had a daughter living in Miami named Francisca (Panchita) Pupo, who was born to a woman in Santa Clara in the late 1950s. “Lidia [Fidel’s half-sister] and Raúl looked after her in Cuba,” said a family friend. “But she was never part of the inner circle.” Pupo was given permission to move to Miami in 1998, where she has lived quietly and teaches school. She also enjoys a friendship with Juanita, the only Castro sibling to break publicly with Fidel and the Revolution, fleeing in 1964. Juanita, who functions as the Castro family matriarch in Miami, said that Pupo is not bitter. She does not speak against Fidel…After all, he is her father.”
Most famously there is Alina Fernández, the daughter of the aristocratic beauty Natalia Revuelta. Fernández fled Cuba in 2003 and wrote a dishy, fierce memoir about life as Fidel’s illegitimate child. But the family of Celia Sanchez and some in the Castro clan, like Juanita, are quick to suggest that Fidel may not be Alina’s father despite his financial support of her during her childhood. They argue that Castro did not dispute paternity in deference to Revuelta, who stayed behind and ardently backed the Revolution.
In domestic and personal matters, Castro is courtly and discreet, not unlike his conduct with foreign visitors. Remarkably, almost none of the many women involved with Castro have sought to publicize or to exploit their relationship to him. One such affair was reportedly with the Venezuelan journalist Isa Dobles, who in the 1980s had her own talk show on Cuban television. It was joked that “she played chess with Fidel every evening,” according to one habanera whose family worked in Cuban intelligence. Despite the fact that the outspoken Isa had a falling out with the Cuban leader, and was said to have been unceremoniously escorted to the airport in 1992, she never wrote a kiss-and-tell memoir.
Indeed, only one paramour, the eccentric Marita Lorenz, who had a brief fling with Castro in 1959 after meeting him on a cruise ship captained by her father, has sought to enrich herself from the experience. She went on to be an adviser on Oliver Stone’s film, JFK.
But it was the relationship between Castro and Myrta Díaz-Balart, his first wife and the mother of his first child, Fidelito, that was most crucial to his personal and political fortunes. From their first meeting at the University of Havana in 1946, the relationship was fraught with passion, politics and conflict. The ill will stemming from the Castro-Díaz-Balart split in 1955 poisoned relations between the two families and has played a remarkable role in the half-century stalemate between Cuba and the United tates.
A beautiful philosopy student, Myrta was the daughter of a politically powerful family. Her father, Rafael, was a well-connected attorney who represented the United Fruit Company. When a neighbor and family friend, Army Colonel Fulgencio Batista, seized power in a coup in 1952, Myrta’s father and brother, also named Rafael, were given important government ministries. Until Batista’s coup, the younger Rafael had been Castro’s devoted friend; indeed, he had introduced his sister Myrta to him and joined the couple on their honeymoon.
When Castro launched his attacks on the Batista government, Myrta broke with her own family to support her husband. But Castro’s machista pride was such that when he discovered that Myrta's brother had provided her with a meager government salary, he turned against her. “It is the reputation of my wife and my honor as a revolutionary that is at stake!" he wrote from prison in 1954. More than three decades of estrangement would follow.
As part of the spoils of ousting Batista and seizing power in 1959, Castro took custody of Fidelito. Meanwhile, Myrta went into exile with her new family in Madrid. “She would have loved to have got [Fidelito] out of Cuba,” said her childhood friend, Barbara Walker Gordon.
Fidelito attended university in the Soviet Union—matriculating with a Ph.D. in physics—then traveled extensively as a government scientist. During this period, Myrta would regularly visit with him on his trips to Europe. She also began to make quiet, discreet trips to Havana. But in the early ‘90s, the visits came to a halt after father and son had a dispute over the handling of Cuba’s nuclear-energy program. In 1999, Myrta fretted to Barbara Gordon that it had been almost eight years since she had seen her son, although they communicated by phone, letters, and email. “She was beside herself,” said Gordon.
But in 2000, Raúl Castro brokered a reconciliation between his prideful brother, Myrta, and Fidelito, who assumed another position as a senior researcher and professor at the Cuban Academy of Sciences. After her second husband died in 2007, Myrta began spending a good deal of time in Cuba, nestled in a comfortable home in western Havana arranged for her by Raúl.
Myrta’s visits infuriated the Díaz-Balarts, who had established themselves as pivotal players in Miami’s Cuban exile community and Florida politics. Two of her nephews, Rafael’s sons Mario and Lincoln, are members of Congress and are among Castro’s most dedicated foes. Both have lobbied—fiercely and unsuccessfully—the Obama Administration not to loosen travel restrictions for Cuban-American families. Curiously, neither nephew has publicly acknowledged the frequent visits of their aunt, nor the existence of their first cousin Fidelito and his five children.
Ann Louise Bardach is author of Without Fidel: A Death Foretold in Miami, Havana and Washington and the acclaimed Cuba Confidential: Love and Vengeance in Miami and Havana. She is a PEN/USA award winning reporter and was a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and has written for The New York Times, Washington Post Outlook, Los Angeles Times, and The Atlantic. She has appeared on 60 Minutes, Today, and CNN, among others.
October 30, 2008
Trouble In Florida
Ann Louise Bardach
The fate of the U.S. Embargo of Cuba rests on down and dirty campaigns in South Florida
I have been covering the nexus of Miami—Havana-Washington politics for almost two decades. It is a scorched-earth terrain of gladiator combat between Cuban strongman Fidel Castro, a small, dedicated army of his would-be assassins, and the Cuban exile powerbrokers who have run Miami and dictated policy to the White House.
I have reported on how this battleground has changed—from the mid 1970s, when bombs went off sometimes daily in Miami, to the post-9/11 era, when violence was shuttled to the side in deference to the ballot box.
This election is the end game: on November 4 the fate of the US Embargo against Cuba will likely be decided by the outcome of the presidential race, along with the political future of its most ardent champions, two members of Congress who also happen to be nephews of Fidel Castro: Lincoln and Mario Diaz-Balart.
The stakes are huge and the campaign is as down and dirty as any in Florida’s colorful history as the brothers try to fight off challenges from their Democratic rivals, both Cuban-Americans.
Dade and Broward counties, which include Miami and its surrounding suburbs, are the most populist in the state, with about a half million Cuban-American voters. The balloting there will likely determine which presidential candidate nails Florida’s 27 coveted electoral votes, along with the fate of the 48 year old U.S. Embargo against Cuba. During this election season, John McCain has morphed into a fierce hardliner on Cuba, aligning himself with the two Republican congressional incumbents.
Barack Obama has said that he is open to diplomacy with Cuba, regardless of whether Fidel or Raul Castro are in power, and has vowed to rescind the Bush Administrations’ harsh restrictions on travel and remittances. That is heresy to the Diaz-Balarts, who are also the sons and grandsons of a famous Cuban politicians, which means that there is little sunlight between the personal and the political in Miami. Think of the Castro/Diaz-Balart saga as the House of Atreus, a Hispanic Hatfields and McCoys or simply as a five decade running telenovela.
The Cuban-American community has undergone dramatic changes, with the majority now backing dialogue with Cuba. Still, hardliners control many of the major levers of power in Miami, their influence felt in media, law enforcement, even the courts.
Determined to maintain their power, the Diaz-Balarts have aired a series of ferocious attacks against their opponents. Last week, a voting scam was uncovered that threatens to end up in the courts, joining a long list of incidents that have made Florida synonymous with dirty elections.
"I don't think any other place in the United States has had such a history of absentee ballot voter fraud,” said Kendall Coffey, the former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida. “Miami has a legacy of lawlessness going back to the 1920’s.”
Two weeks ago, after absentee ballots arrived in the mail, a gentleman calling himself “Juan” visited several supporters of Raul Martinez, the Democratic former mayor of Hialeah who is challenging Lincoln Diaz-Balart. “Juan” offered the voters assistance in filling out their ballots, which he then promised to deliver to the elections office. “Juan” had been dispatched to pro-Martinez household by callers claiming to work for Martinez. In fact neither “Juan” nor his dispatchers work for Martinez nor the Democratic Party—and no one knows what happened to the ballots.
Left: The Miami Herald traced the phone number given to the duped residents to a consultant who works for Diaz-Balart. One duped voter summoned Jeff Garcia, the campaign manager for Martinez, who was able to videotape “Juan” as well as his car and license plate. Another mysterious visitor named “Angel” purporting to be from the office of Miami-Dade’s election supervisor was also videotaped. Cornered by a Martinez volunteer, “Angel” said he was employed by the Diaz-Balart office. Jeff Garcia then delivered affidavits from the misled voters to the State Attorney’s office. But those wise in the ways of Miami are not holding their breath.
State Attorney Kathy Fernandez Rundle has been famously lax about enforcement, although following local media coverage, she has become more engaged. Lincoln Diaz-Balart’s spokesman told me that the fraud allegation is “a ludicrous charge coming from a desperate campaign.”
The Martinez camp disagrees, and notes that misrepresentations by telephone violate federal law. It gave the Juan tapes to local TV and also enlisted high-powered Miami lawyer, Michael Band. “Win or lose this election, we will pursue this case,” Garcia said.
The “Juan/Angel” saga caps a long list of election funny business in Dade County.
· In 1998 the election of Miami’s Republican mayor, Xavier Suarez was overthrown by the courts for an array of irregularities. For example, a certain Manuel Yip had died in 1994, yet voted absentee every year thereafter. The presiding judge also ruled that some 5,000 absentee ballots were fraudulent. One Miami vegetable peddler had witnessed more than 70 absentee ballots while some of the city's poorest had been paid $10 to vote for Suarez.
· In 2002, while chair of Florida’s House Redistricting Committee, Mario Diaz-Balart, in one of the great gerrymandering triumphs in recent memory, carved out a congressional district tailor made for himself. Then he stepped in and won.
· In 2004, absentee ballots were reportedly sold on Little Havana's Calle Ocho for $25 apiece.
Democrats are mindful and have turned out a small army in Florida that has registered about 700,000 more voters than Republicans. “The Democrats are showing a Republican level of discipline this year,” said Miami columnist Jim DeFede. “They have money to burn and they are burning it.”
They will need every cent as the Diaz-Balarts are using all the weapons in their considerable arsenal. “They will have to be crow-barred out of here,” says Democratic rival Joe Garcia.
But the playing field is hardly level. Radio Mambi, which claims to be number one in the Spanish-language radio market in South Florida, is run by a colorful character named Armando Perez-Roura, who has become a kingmaker in exile politics. He is ardently anti-Castro and pro –McCain and Diaz-Balart, as is Mambi celebrity Ninoska Pérez Castellón, who hosts a morning show with Perez-Roura, another in the afternoon solo and another on Miami television.
“That’s three shows a day that Ninoska has to campaign against me,” complains Martinez. “Ninoska attacks me 24 hours a day, every single day,” says Garcia, “and I have complained to Univision [Mambi’s parent company] that the station is inciting violence.”
Florida's Cuban-American politics are known as The Third Rail. Of the one million registered Hispanic voters in the state, half are Cuban-Americans. It was always the conventional wisdom that a Democrat needed 35% of the Cuban vote to take Florida. But if Obama carries Florida with less—as may prove to be the case—politics in The Sunshine State will never be the same.
Once a rock-solid GOP constituency, the Cuban-American community has splintered. John McCain (and the Diaz-Balarts) will carry the majority of first-wave exiles—about 300,000 older, whiter Cubans known as el exilio historico, who arrived in the early 1960s. But even hardliners on Cuba tend to be social progressives who support bilingual education, expanded Social Security and Medicare spending, and a laissez faire immigration policy. That puts them at loggerheads with McCain’s running mate Sarah Palin, a Christian Right conservative. And the Iraq War, is as unpopular on Calle Ocho as it is in Manhattan.
Another slice of el exilio historico will not be voting for Obama because of his skin color, usually indicated in Miami by tapping two fingers against one’s forearm. Some refer to him as el negro, others allude to the nube negra [the black cloud].
Still pollster Sergio Bendixen doesn’t think racism is as strong a factor in la comunidad as it once may have been. The majority of Cuban-Americans in South Florida today are post-Mariel, having come after 1980, and most of them are of mixed raced background.
Polls at press time have Obama leading McCain in Florida by 3 to 4 points. Bendixen says early exit tallies indicate Obama is nailing about a third of older Cuban-Americans, who went only 25% for Kerry. But Obama is ahead two-to-one among the 100,000 who were born in the U.S. and doing even better with the 100,000 or so who came after 1980. Moreover, Obama is leading among the state's half million non-Cuban Hispanic voters--Colombians, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans and Nicaraguans.
The Diaz-Balarts, both in squeaker races, are fighting for their political lives. One ad put up by Lincoln Diaz-Balart begins with a mug shot of Martinez and the word “guilty” running across the screen. What the ad doesn’t tell viewers was that Martinez’s conviction for extortion was reversed on appeal—or that the charges in 1990 were leveled by an acting US attorney, Dexter Lehtinen, the husband of Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who stepped in and took the congressional seat that Martinez seemed to have a lock on until he was charged.
Raul Martinez has responded with his own blitz of commercials charging Diaz-Balart with, among other things, accepting money from an indicted Puerto Rican politician, which has been vehemently denied by Diaz-Balart.
Joe Garcia, formerly Dade’s Democratic Party chair, was also a past Executive Director of the Cuban-American National Foundation. Once a hardline exile organization, CANF has shifted towards the political center and has endorsed Barack Obama. Mario Diaz-Balart's ads tie Garcia to the collapse of Enron and other misdeeds. “You can still do the Big Lie in Miami,” said Garcia. “And get away with it. This is a town where the basic institutions have collapsed.“ (Calls to the office Mario Diaz-Balart for a response were not returned.)
While the economy remains the central issue in Miami as elsewhere, Garcia never misses an opportunity to remind voters about some tricky family history. “The last time the Diaz-Balarts were removed from power,” quips Garcia. “It took a Revolution and we ended up with Fidel Castro.”
To that end, he has produced the most talked about ad in Miami. It begins with circus calliope music and shows Fidel Castro gesticulating wildly with a red letter text below him reading “Cuban dictator Fidel Castro.” Then we see Mario Diaz-Balart making virtually the same gestures with the red letters below him reading “U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart.” Next up is the scowling face of his brother Lincoln Diaz-Balart. The images are repeated: Fidel, Mario, Lincoln. The dizzying music continues.
Then the message appears on screen: “This November ... Let’s end the family circus. Vote against Fidel’s nephews.
50 Years Later, Who Wins and Who Loses
Ann Louise Bardach
Sunday, January 11, 2009; B03
On New Year's Day, Fidel Castro and his brother Raul celebrated their golden anniversary -- marking a half-century since they brought revolution to Cuba. On Jan. 20, Barack Obama will become the 44th president of the United States. But to the Castros, who have struck out the previous 10 occupants of the Oval Office, he will simply be the 11th batter to step up to the plate.
In 2009, the 50-year, high-stakes showdown between Washington and Havana is likely to culminate not in a final glorious duel but in resignation born of fatigue. And there will be indisputable winners and losers -- mostly losers -- as the Obama administration wades into the troubled waters of the U.S.-Cuba relationship. Here's a look at who ends up where.
Fidel Castro. He's the Cuban Marathon Man, refusing to surrender, retreat or die. Mortally ill with intestinal disease, he hasn't been seen in public since July 26, 2006. His illnesses and botched surgeries would have felled any other mortal, but through sheer grit and vengeance, he lives on.
Raul Castro. While Fidel remains the wizard behind the curtain, Raul is front and center as Cuba's new head of state, and it will be under his watch that the five-decade U.S. embargo enters its death spiral. Right off, Obama has promised to lift the Bush administration's restrictions, imposed in 2004, on Cuban Americans traveling and sending money to the island. Next on the agenda will be allowing more Americans to visit and leaving it up to the Cubans to be the heavies in keeping troublesome exiles and pesky reporters like me away.
Although the Obama administration is neither able nor inclined to rescind the embargo entirely, it can encourage its allies in Congress to begin the process of dismantling it. With a new Brookings poll showing an unprecedented majority (55 percent) of Cuban Americans opposing continuation of the embargo, and 79 percent viewing it critically, the administration will have the wind in its sails to act.
Russia and China. These two U.S. rivals have the entree to reestablish a beachhead and, no doubt, a listening post in our backyard. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Chinese leader Hu Jintao have both been feted in Havana recently, and all manner of trade deals are in the works.
The anti-Castro cottage industry. The eight years of the Bush presidency were the golden goose for a cadre of ideologically hardline entrepreneurs and their organizations. Although most exiles are motivated by genuine conviction and human rights concerns, a segment has also benefited richly from the protracted antagonism between the United States and Cuba. In 2008 alone, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the State Department doled out a whopping $45 million of taxpayer largess to groups charged with fostering democracy in Cuba, such as the Center for a Free Cuba and the International Republican Institute.
Among the losers here is Felipe Sixto, a former special assistant to President Bush and the White House's liaison to exile leaders, who could now be looking at a stretch in the pokey. Sixto was forced to resign last March amid allegations that he had stolen nearly $600,000 of USAID grant money while chief of staff at the Center for a Free Cuba and during his later stint at the White House. In late November, Sixto was charged with stealing from a federally funded program, and on Dec. 19, he pleaded guilty and repaid $644,884.60 to the center, which had reported the theft.
There was more startling news in a 2008 report by the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), the largest exile organization in the country, which has moved to the political center from its former perch on the right. According to the report, just 17 percent of the funds given to exile groups between 1996 and 2006 actually made it to the island. The other 83 percent was spent on salaries, travel and administrative expenses.
Last summer, USAID intermittently halted some of its funding for Cuba programs while it investigated the embezzlement at the Center for a Free Cuba and suspicious credit-card spending at the Miami-based Grupo de Apoyo a la Democracia (Support Group for Democracy), two leading beneficiaries of government funds. But according to a 2008 report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), USAID renewed payments of the frozen funds to both in September. That means that the Grupo de Apoyo has hauled in about $10.9 million since 2000, according to the GAO and USAID, while about $7.2 million has been doled out to the Center for a Free Cuba since 2005.
Although the Bush administration has requested another $20 million to fund Cuba programs for 2009, the Obama team will presumably slow the gravy train or review its contents and recipients.
Radio and Television Marti. The International Broadcasting Bureau spends around $35 million in taxpayer funds annually on these two stations, which transmit Spanish-language broadcasts to Cuba. In 2006 and 2007, the GAO found all manner of funny business at the Martis, which have received roughly half a billion dollars over the past 20 years. Known in Miami as "botellas" -- slang for pork-barrel sinecures -- the stations have long operated as gift baskets for Miami's political elite. For a period, the fathers of Miami Republican Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Lincoln and Mario Diaz-Balart, who champion funding for the stations, had their own shows on Radio Marti.
Because the Cuban government jams both stations' transmissions, Congress approved $10 million in 2006 to buy TV Marti its own airplane from which to beam its signal. Nevertheless, according to recent studies, listener- and viewership have declined as the Martis' programming has become progressively more shrill since their 1996 move from Washington to Miami. Cubans are keen for uncensored news of the world and their country, but they get all the screeds they need homegrown.
The 2007 GAO report found that the Martis had awarded more than $1 million in contracts to Miami's TV Azteca and Radio Mambi, renowned for its deep bench of anti-Castro bloviators, to aid transmission, bypassing federal contract-bidding procedures. More dubiously and perhaps in contravention of the Marti charter, the two stations have been running Marti's programming locally.
Bets are on that Obama's team will compel the Martis to professionalize their content and their bidding practices. They may also choose to bring the stations back under the umbrella of the Voice of America, to keep a closer eye and ear on them.
Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart. The Miami Republican does most of the heavy lifting and horse-trading in Congress to ensure that anti-Castro programs are amply funded. He has been a lifelong satellite around Planet Fidel: The two share a birthday, and Diaz-Balart is Castro's nephew by marriage, his most ardent foe and his would-be successor. As George W. Bush's quarterback, Diaz-Balart has dictated virtually all policy and staffing regarding Cuba. That will not be the case come Jan. 20.
The Cuban Liberty Council. This fiercely hard-line organization will no longer be arranging the place settings at the White House on Cuban Independence Day. Replacing it will be the CANF and the Cuba Study Group, an exile organization led by conservative but pragmatic Cuban-American businessmen.
The Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) is likely to see its Cuban sails trimmed. OFAC's chief mandate is to enforce sanctions against countries harboring terrorists. But a 2007 government study found that 61 percent of the office's investigations since 2000 had been aimed at just one target: Cuba. Between 2000 and 2005, OFAC penalties for violations of the Cuban embargo represented more than 70 percent of all the penalties the office imposed. In 2004, a congressional hearing revealed that tax dollars earmarked for the war on terrorism were spent on tracking unauthorized travelers to Cuba. At the hearing, OFAC acknowledged that it had just four employees searching for the funds of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, as opposed to more than 20 full-time investigators charged with hunting down suspected violators of the embargo. American taxpayers had picked up the tab for OFAC's prosecution of a 75-year-old grandmother from San Diego who took a bicycling trip to Cuba, an Indiana teacher who delivered Bibles and the son of missionaries who traveled to the island to spread his parents' ashes at the site of the church they'd founded 50 years before.
Luis Posada Carriles. The new year isn't looking especially bright for the fugitive bomber and would-be Castro assassin, who has enjoyed safe haven in Miami for the past year. The Obama Justice Department might actually move on the evidence collected by the FBI and a federal grand jury -- seated for almost three years at a cost of millions of dollars -- reportedly tying Posada to a string of bombings in Cuba in 1997.
Carlos Valenciaga. Fidel Castro's secretary and longtime faithful aide, who solemnly announced Castro's health crisis on television in 2006, has fallen out of favor -- and out of a job.
La Revolución. Although a significant deposit of oil was discovered last year in Cuban waters, the country, one of the world's last Marxist outposts, is still struggling to pay its bills. And until dividends begin to trickle down to the kitchen table, the island will continue to hemorrhage young people, who have despaired of seeing promised reforms. An estimated 80,000 Cubans -- many of the country's best and brightest -- have left for the United States since 2005.
That's why Havana's premier dissident blogger, Yoani Sanchez, thinks that the revolution itself falls into the loser category. "Revolutions don't last half a century," she wrote in a December posting. "They always expire, trying to make themselves eternal. . . . Nothing will manage to raise it from the tomb and bring it back to life. Let it rest in peace."
Ann Louise Bardach is the author of "Cuba
SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
Monday, October 5, 2009
"Without Fidel: A Death Foretold in Miami, Havana, and Washington" (Scribner Books, 278 pages, $28), by Ann Louise Bardach: This fast-paced primer on Fidel Castro and the future of Cuba by veteran journalist Ann Louise Bardach offers a handful of new details into the communist leader's illness, his wives and youth. But the book's strength lies in Bardach's ability to weave together a host of diverse sources, past and present, to create a compelling narrative for even a neophyte to all things Cuban.
Among the new tidbits: the former cigar-chomping Castro has frequently used an oxygen chamber; a doctor present the day Castro underwent a lifesaving colostomy said the Cuban leader cried several times after the operation; and Castro's first wife Myrta Diaz-Balart (whose fervently anti-Castro nephews represent South Florida in the U.S. House of Representatives) has frequently visited him since he fell ill in 2006.
The book includes much speculation on both Fidel Castro's health, as well as the island's future. Unfortunately, many of the juiciest details are provided by anonymous sources or unattributed altogether. Such is often the case with Cuba, where offering outsiders insights into the personal life of the Castros has sometimes been met with severe punishment, but it nevertheless weakens the impact of those sections.
"Without Fidel: A Death Foretold in Miami, Havana, and Washington" is divided into three parts, focusing on the life-threatening stomach illness that nearly killed Castro; an insider's view on the U.S. case against Cuban exile and accused terrorist, former CIA operative Luis Posada Carriles; and finally a look at Cuba's new president, Castro's brother Raul.
Among the most interesting sections are Bardach's description of the U.S. government's attempts to force her to testify against Posada, whom she has interviewed extensively and who confessed to her that he was behind a string of 1997 hotel bombings in Havana. He later recanted but is still wanted in Venezuela and Cuba for those attacks, as well as a 1976 airliner bombing that killed 73 people.
Bardach insists "the Founding Fathers of the Constitution were quite clear that they did not intend for the government to be allowed to raid the news media for their work files. Most especially after they had bungled a case and destroyed crucial evidence. And that is exactly what happened in the case of Luis Posada."
But Bardach adds: "For my part, it raised a peculiar pickle: contemplating how far one should go to protect the civil liberties of an accused terrorist."
Bardach eventually turned over tapes of the Posada interviews to the federal government, and an FBI analysis captured incriminating statements he'd made that had previously been inaudible. Bardach is still hoping to avoid testifying in Posada's trial next year on immigration fraud charges.
Followers of Bardach's work may be disappointed to find much in the book a recap from previous articles and her acclaimed "Cuba Confidential: Love and Vengeance in Miami and Havana," in which she traced the hostilities between the Castros and the Diaz-Balarts. This time, Bardach adds in the feud between the Castros and the Bush clan, who were major shareholders of a sugar company in Cuba before it was confiscated during the island's 1959 revolution.
Still, Bardach, like few other Cuba-watchers, is able to weave together the personal and the political, bringing to life the complex history of the tiny Caribbean Island and its decades-old feud with the world's superpower.
SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
Sunday, December 27, 2009
The Autobiography of Fidel Castro
By Norberto Fuentes; translated by Anna Kushner
(W.W. Norton; 572 pages; $27.95)
"No one owns the past, at least not until it is written," Fidel Castro shrewdly observes at the start of his faux "autobiography" - the deliciously wicked construct devised by Norberto Fuentes. "I've learned something else," Castro adds: "the Revolution is always creating the past."
In other words, as the cliche goes, history gets written by the winners. And therein lies the conceit of this entertaining, edifying and voluminous work (572 pages!) that purports to channel the wily Cuban strongman. As served up by Fuentes, a Cuban intellectual who fled his homeland in 1994, this brew of history and satire was originally published in Spanish at even greater length - perhaps fitting for the famously verbose Castro. For the English-language version, the book has been tweaked and pruned. Most Cubaphiles will find Fuentes' effort to be a masterful act of ventriloquism, offering a Castro who is prideful, intuitively Machiavellian and relentlessly cynical.
"Almost all civil wars begin as a demonstration that goes out of control," Castro points out. "Controlling the streets," he emphasizes, was the crucial key to his maintaining power. To that end, opponents - or "the enemy," as he puts it - must not be allowed to gather "in groups of more than two or three individuals."
Fuentes' Maximum Leader holds forth on all matters - great and small - just as Castro, now Cuba's convalescent-in-chief, does in his "Reflections" - the hundreds of columns he has written for the state-run media since his medically mandated retirement after emergency intestinal surgery in July 2006.
Fuentes captures much of Castro, balancing the brilliant with the despotic. After all, he knows his man, having formerly been a Fidel literary favorite, along with Gabriel García Márquez. Like the Colombian Nobelist, Fuentes is fascinated by Latin American strongmen - and their enemies. (It is rumored in Miami circles that Fuentes also enjoys time with Luis Posada Carriles, Castro's would-be assassin of many decades.)
The first attempt at a Castro biography appeared in April 1959, with a collection of his letters titled "Cartas del Presidio" - "Letters From Prison." The letters are an early road map of Castro's political and personal ambitions, filled with warmth and affection toward supporters. To those who opposed him, there were rages and rants.
Since then, there have been another dozen major Castro biographies, culminating with Castro's own effort last year, "My Life," which came in at roughly 200,000 words, based on some 100 hours of conversation with the Spanish journalist Ignacio Ramonet. Castro was still glossing the text in November 2006, according to Ramonet. That would mean that while the Cuban leader was dangling between life and death, being fed intravenously, 50 pounds thinner and barely able to sit up, he summoned his uber-human will to rewrite his memoirs. "I wanted to finish it because I didn't know how much time I'd have," Castro explained to a friend.
What is most remarkable are the many similarities between Castro's version and that of Fuentes. However, when Fuentes' Castro shares the details of his romantic and sexual history, we know we have fully entered the realm of farce. Say what one will - enemies and friends alike attest to Castro's mania for privacy.
But vividly, sometimes hilariously, brought to life is an array of Cuban truisms. "My mother, like the majority of Cuban women, was most concerned with her male offsprings' reproductive apparatus," Fuentes/Castro informs us. "In Cuba, a man has reached full maturity ... when his mother stops examining his pinga."
In scant evidence are positive or human qualities - even ones confirmed by Castro's letters and disgruntled relatives who have fled Cuba. For example, Idalmis Menendez, formerly married to Castro's son, Alex, said she often witnessed Castro interacting with warm spontaneity toward his family, especially his grandchildren. "We had a good relationship," she said in a 2006 interview. "He was always affectionate with me."
Above all, this monumentally proud and narcissistic Castro trusts no one. And this is certainly true. In "My Life," Castro said he learned his lessons early. "He was a compañero," he said of a colleague turned informer. "I trusted him. That's the mistake. You shouldn't trust someone just because he's a friend." In a letter written in 1954, Castro advised a comrade to "maintain a deceptively soft touch and smile with everyone," adding, "There will be enough time later to squash all the cockroaches together."
To that end, Fuentes' Castro employs the services of the ruthless Ramiro Valdes as henchman and spymaster who surveils even "heroic compañeros." The very same Valdes has made a stunning political comeback, just recently promoted to vice president of the Council of State, making him one of the most powerful figures in Cuba.
Fuentes contends that his "autobiography" is based on confirmable events and facts, but there are a smattering of minor errors of dates, names, etc. At one point, Fuentes writes that Castro's father died in 1956 when his son was in the Sierra, when Fidel was in Mexico. However, Fuentes is the beneficiary of the superb editing and translation of Anna Kushner, whose deftness reminds one of Natasha Wimmer.
The continuous play between fact and fiction in the book is nicely augmented by the historic photographs that stud the text. Quite fittingly, it concludes with a 1986 photograph of Castro, his arm draped along the shoulder of a suited-up Fuentes, enjoying a whispered confidence from the writer cum courtier. Perhaps one man the comandante-en-jefe should not have trusted.
It was inevitable that Castro would seek to have the last word, but Norberto Fuentes may have trumped him.
Ann Louise Bardach is the author of "Without Fidel: A Death Foretold in Miami, Havana, and Washington" and "Cuba Confidential: Love and Vengeance in Miami and Havana." She is also the editor of "The Prison Letters of Fidel Castro" and serves on the Brookings Institution's Cuba Study Project.
Viernes, 07 de Mayo de 2004
BIOGRAFÍA DEL MEJOR EXAMIGO DEL DICTADOR
Norberto Fuentes lo cuenta todo sobre Fidel Castro
El escritor Norberto Fuentes fue durante muchos años amigo y colaborador de Fidel Castro, hasta perder su confianza y convertirse en un enemigo de la Revolución. Liberado en el exilio, ahora presenta la primera parte de una extenso relato del Comandante: ‘La autobiografía de Fidel Castro. El paraíso de los otros’ (Destino), cuya continuación saldrá a la luz el próximo otoño.
Confesión de un mito en vida
Es poco habitual que alguien se atreva y pueda descubrir la trayectoria y la personalidad de un mandatario de la talla de Fidel Castro estando todavía vivo. Pero Norberto Fuentes tiene varias cualidades que lo legitiman: fue amigo íntimo de Fidel y colaboró en las operaciones secretas más delicadas de la Revolución. Escribe la historia, prorroga, por puro aburrimiento y consciente de estar adelantándose al orden natural de las cosas. Toda la información que reside en su memoria será tarde o temprano expuesta al mundo; pero antes de que se marchite lo oportuno del momento Norberto Fuentes vomita hasta el último recuerdo que alimentó su experiencia.
Toda la documentación que aparece en ‘La autobiografía de Fidel Castro’ existe en el fondo de archivo del Ministerio del Interior y los departamentos del Comité Central del Partido. Una confesión en vida nacida del puño de otro hombre, pero que se permite prometer sorpresa incluso a cualquier historiador y biógrafo experto.
Y para ser realista también en las formas, el autor ha escrito 876 páginas solo para el primer tomo, haciendo justicia de la habitual e interminable locuacidad de Fidel. Por eso, desde el 13 de agosto de 1926 en que el niñito Fidel llegó a este mundo sin que nadie sospechara en lo que iba a convertirse, hasta la actualidad cubana, el autor detalla todos los rincones de su biografía.
Rehén de la Revolución
Periodista y escritor, Norberto Fuentes interrumpió el éxito literario para participar hombro con hombro en las acciones combativas de Fidel, llegando a merecer varias condecoraciones militares. Pero el final predestinado para su amistad con el Comandante no era de cuento, y Fuentes se encontró viviendo en La Habana como un rehén del Gobierno desde que perdió la confianza de Fidel. Se le prohibió la salida de la isla y la publicación de libros, por lo que se vio impulsado a escapar en una balsa soviética que fue interceptada y detenida.
Después de ser liberado, en 1994 iniciaba una huelga de hambre como campaña insurrecta, protegida por el apoyo de sus colegas intelectuales de Estados Unidos, América Latina y Europa. Fidel Castro finalmente permitió que su ex amigo saliera de la isla, vigilado por Gabriel García Márquez al que le dio un sólo mensaje para Norberto: “Dile que yo nunca he hecho nada para impedir que él salga del país”.
Ha estado con nosotros ...
25 de Mayo de 2004
1. ¿Era Ernesto Guevara el despiadado asesino que describe Zoe Valdés?, ¿cómo se explica que muchos pacifistas tengan por icono la imagen de quien hizo la guerra en cuatro paises en dos continentes distintos?.
¿Qué sabe Zoe Valdés y Che Guervara? Lo que los pacifistas tengan como simbolo. Entiendo la idea de que sea difícil aceptar que un pacifista tenga como bandera a un símbolo de la guerra.
2. Se justifica frecuentemente a Fidel Castro como un idealista que cree que su fin justifica sus medios y que se ha maleado con los años, ¿qué le diferencia de Francisco Franco?.
Yo creo que le diferencia todo. En definitiva, expresan políticas y filosofías muy diferentes. Fidel Castro es un hombre muy pragmático, y eso le ha permitido permanece en el poder durante tantos años. Más que un idealista, yo lo definitía como un intelectual muy abezado en los asuntos del poder.
3. De no haber perdido la confianza de Fidel, ¿seguiría hoy en día a su lado?
Yo no perdí la confianza de Fidel, Fidel perdió la mia.
4. ¿Piensa usted que Fidel Castro puede estar loco?
5. ¿cómo se siente vendiendo libros en el mercado capitalista después de haber defendido lo contrario durante años, con estrategias dictatoriales?
¿Yo defendí lo contrario? Yo he vendido toda mi vida todos mis libros en el mercado capitalista, y en el socialista. En todos los mercados.
6. ¿Porqué el pueblo cubano no se levanta contra el dictador?
Pregúntale al pueblo cubano. ¿Por qué no se levantaron contra Franco? ¿Contra Hitler? ¿Contra Mussolini? ¿Contra Stalin? Pero Fidel si se levantó contra Batista.
7. ¿Fue Fidel siempre comunista y no lo hizo público hasta que su poder se consolidó (Versión de Huber Matos) o por el contrario fue un acercamiento mutuo el de Fidel y el Partido Comunista ante las circunstancias iniciales de la Revolución cubana?.
Ninguna de las dos. Fidel se hizo leninista al final de sus estudios universitarios. Tuvo relaciones con el Partido Comunista de esa época pero no fue reclutado por el partido. Él vislumbró la posibilidad de una revolución comunista desde los primeros dias de la revolución cubana.
8. ¿Crees que Fidel tiene lo peor de los españoles -su padre era gallego- y lo peor de los cubanos?
Él cree que tiene lo mejor. En Cuba, gallego es sinónimo de español y es sin duda la nación más cercana a los cubanos.
9. En un futuro sin Fidel, los EEUU y los exiliados de Miami ¿serán una amenaza o una esperanza para Cuba? ¿Ve el futuro del régimen castrista más allá de Castro?
Cualquier cosa que pretenda el viejo exilio cubano sobre Cuba es una amenaza. Pienso que su desplazamiento del poder es defendido desde hace muchos años. A los Estados Unidos no les conviene en absoluto crear un sigma social en Cuba, mucho menos una guerra. La impronta, sino de Castro, de la Revolución Cubana, en el futuro de Cuba es inevitable.
10. ¿Sabe vd. si es cierto que Allende planeaba hacer de Chile una "cuba andina"?
No, todo lo contrario. Precisamente por la alternativa que ofrecia Allende y la Unidad Popular, es que Fidel saboteó su preceso.
11. ¿En cuánto calcula Usted la fortuna de Castro?
No tengo ningun conocimiento de que tenga una fortuna.
12. ¿Qué cree que le va a parecer el libro a Fidel?
Se va a molestar mucho, ya lo está. Y prepara posibles respuestas. Lo que le debe molestar más es que él después de su lectura sabe dos cosas: una, que todo lo que cuento es verdad; y dos, que yo he escrito un libro sobre él, que él nunca podrá escribir con la misma libertad que yo.
13. Es Fidel multimillonario , tiene cuentas en Suiza u otros paraísos fiscales??
No lo sé y no lo creo.
14. Se puede visitar Cuba ahora, o ir es un suicidio para los sentidos?
A Cuba va mucha gente y no conozco a nadie que se haya suicidado los sentidos. Eso me recuerda a una novela policiaca cubana, en la que se dice que a un personaje le dieoron un tiro en la mente!
15. Después de haber defendido durante tantos años una Revolución Socialista que abolió la propiedad privada, ¿qué piensa de la propiedad privada en la actualidad? ¿sabe que su error lo pagaron muchos cubanos, se arrepiente?
La volvería a defender, no cometí ningún error. Para mi el error lo cometieron los que no tuvieron los cojones de participar de esa deslumbrante aventura.
16. ¿Cual es su opinión del exilio?, me parece un ejemplo admirable de solidaridad cómo acogen a cada nuevo huído de la "cárcel grande".
Si usted conoció esa solidaridad, le felicito. No es mi experiencia.
17. Si usted vendió los libros en el mercado socialista o capitalista, ¿por qué otros escritores cubanos no han podido nunca hacerlo cuando ud.era parte del régimen?, ¿me puede explicar en qué consiste el mercado socialista, no es una contradicción?
Mis libros no se venden por pertenecer a ningún Régimen. Yo buscaría las razones en otro lado.
18. ¿A qué cree Ud. que se debe la supuesta ceguera de García Márquez con la figura de Fidel Castro? ¿No se da cuenta que ha llegado a un callejón sin salida y que sería mejor abandonar el poder como un caballero? Gracias por su amabilidad.
Son amigos, y respeto el valor con el que Gabo defiende esa amistad. Además Gabo ha sido un hombre muy servicial con muchas personas y creo que es el momento que debemos dejarlo tranquilo y agradecer Cien años de soledad, y la bondad demostrada durante tantos años.
19. Sennor Fuentes, Por que autobiografia? El libro ha sido escrito por Castro? Pese a que lo considero un oportunista, reconozco que en su caso se cumple aquello de "lo que no mata, cura".
Si me considera un oportunista reconocido, ¿para qué te interesa una opinión mia?
20. ¡Quién se beneficia más de quién: Fidel de Hugo Chávez o Chávez de Fidel?
Yo diría que Fidel de Hugo.
21. ¿Entonces si por cojones abolió la propiedad privada, y no se arrepiente de ello, por qué no regala su libro, o éste sí que es propiedad privada suya?
Le paso su sugerencia a los editores.
22. Tras este encuentro, ¿qué opinión cree que tenemos los españoles de Fidel y su régimen?, ¿a qué atribuye esa opinión?, ¿la comparte?.
¿Tu eres los españoles? ¿Todos?
23. ¿Cómo se explica que tras el fracaso del comunismo en países con recursos suficientes para no depender de USA, como China o la URSS vd. siga siendo comunista?.
Tu sabes más sobre mi que yo, nunca he militado en un partido comunista.
24. ¿por qué escribe sobre Fidel si no sabe siquiera que tiene una fortuna que le coloca entre los hombres más ricos del mundo?
Yo escribo solo en los límites de mi conocimiento y del a cosas que puedo probar. Dado que tú tienes esa información, creo que sería un tema excelente para que lo desarrollaras y escribieras tu mismo un best-seller.
25. Cuando muera Fidel, ¿qué?
Me imagino que lo enterrarán. ¿Qué hicieron con Franco aquí después de morir?
26. Aprueba la laxitud con que muchos intelectuales de izquierdas tratan la atroz dictadura que Fidel mantiene en su país
¿Pero sólo los intelectuales? ¿Son los únicos que tienen esa laxitud?
27. Defina a Fidel Castro en cinco adjetivos
¿Y ningún sustantivo?
28. Qué opinión le merecen los cubanos anticastristas que viven en USA
Depende del sector en el que los localicemos. Por definición estoy en contra de las posiciones reaccionarias, pero cada día, gracias a Dios, el viejo exilio cubano es más reducido y está más desmoralizado.
29. Qué diferencia un dictador de derechas de uno de izquierdas
Son diferencias ideológicas y de objetivo. Desgraciadamente, este es el clásico ejemplo que demuestra que para ambos dictadores el fin justifica los medios.
30. En su opinión. ¿Cómo evolucionará Cuba politicamente después de Fidel?
Creo que con buen viento y mejor voluntad de los cubanos de evolucionar como un país democrático y libre.
31. Tiene razón, nunca he leido que vd. fuese comunista, sí lo era Fidel y vd. combatió a su lado, ¿existe alguna ideología conocida a la que vd. esté próximo?, sólo por curiosidad, pues está a favor de la abolición de la propiedad privada.
¿De dónde sacaste que yo esté a favor de la abolición de la propiedad privada? En cuanto a la filiación comunista me permito explicarte que comunista es la persona que milita en un partido comunista y que ese nunca ha sido mi caso para evidentemente, tu que no eres comunista, eres mucho menos flexible que yo.
32. ¿Cómo puedes ponerte en la piel de Fidel Castro y contar su historia en primera persona? ¿Te ha marcado realmente su vida?
Poniéndome y teniendo un conocimiento exhaustivo del personaje y sus circunstancias. Es un trabajo literario tan enteramente válido como el de Margarote Yoursenar en Las memorias de Adriano, o el de Gertrude Steain en La autobiografía de Alice B. Tockles. ¿Te acuerdas de las memorias de Francisco Franco escritas por Vázque Montalbán?
Amigos y enemigos: he pasado un buen rato con ustedes, me han ayudado a activar la mente, he chateado al lado de una bellísima muchacha llamada Ángela López (morid de envidia) y si este es lo que me depara el final de mi próximo libro, les prometo hacerlo mucho más conflictivo. Abajo los lugares comunes. Respetuosamente, Norberto Fuentes.