Family ties weave an intricate net, tattered and gaping in places, strong and tight in others. Attempts to explain the psychology of Fidel Castro usually begin with Freudian premises about his parents and childhood. Ironically, both supporters and critics of el Maximo Lider have relied on the same distortions to reach similar conclusions for entirely different ends. Juanita Castro, Fidel’s younger sister and, to date, the closest intimate to join the fray, wrote her memoirs to set her family’s record straight. Along the way, anecdote by anecdote, she builds contrasting character sketches of her two infamous brothers, Fidel and Raul, and drops a couple of bombshells of her own.
Angel Castro Argiz had nine children, in descending order; two of them (Lidia and Pedro Emilio) from his first marriage; seven (Angelita, Ramon, Fidel, Raul, Juanita, Enma and Agustina) from Lina Ruz, his second wife. Castro pere has been depicted as a cold, avaricious exploiter of the peasantry and a distant father who barely acknowledged the mother of his children and the children themselves. This characterization served the twin purposes of explaining, to his enemies, Fidel’s megalomania and doctrinaire ideology; to his admirers, his sense of social justice. Juanita reclaims her father’s trampled reputation and demolishes the pop psychology.
Angel Castro was ambitious. He wanted to escape rural Spain and move up in the world. At the age of 24 he volunteered – in exchange for a hefty fee, a perfectly legal arrangement at the time – to replace a wealthier drafted recruit for the Spanish-American War. It was a shrewd move. By the time he arrived in Cuba, the war was over and his fee became the downpayment for his dream, owning his own ranch. He got a job with the United Fruit Company while on the side raising fighting cocks, a lucrative venture in a very popular pastime at that time and place. He was making enough money to help out his family in Spain, finance his land acquisitions in Cuba, and start his own family at home in Biran in the eastern part of the country. Along the way he even managed to establish a general merchandise store, Almacenes Castro, and to win Cuba’s biggest lottery prize twice. The Castros were wealthy but lived modestly.
Although ambitious, Angel Castro was also generous. During seasonal lay- offs at the United Fruit Company sugar refinery, he’d hire workers at four times the going rate and at Christmas he’d give his employees generous bonuses, often additionally canceling their debts at Almacenes Castro. A taciturn workaholic who demanded respect, he nonetheless delegated discipline of the children to his wife, Lina. Yet he always delighted in the company of his rambunctious brood, and spoiled them. Ambitious too for his legacy, he paid for their higher education in Havana and gave Fidel a $10,000 gift at his marriage – big money in 1948.
Lina Ruz, Fidel’s mother, was a devout woman who managed the household with equanimity and an earthy sense of humor. War, prison, revolution, atheism, and communism strained family ties but never rent them until after her death. One day in March 1963, Fidel admonished his family to watch him on television. That night they dutifully gathered but were soon bored with the typically long-winded harangue, which lasted until midnight. Juanita picks up the story:
From the television studio he came to my house where we were play- ing dominos with mom and some friends.
He arrived and greeted every- one,
“Did you see me? What did you think?”
There was silence.
“What with the game and all we forgot to tune in!” someone piped up. Very disturbed, he suddenly changed the subject and asked our mother, “How many head of livestock do you have at the ranch?”
“I can’t remember exactly,” she responded puzzled.
“You’re going to have to sell all the beeves because today I announced the second round of the Agrarian Reform that will soon be put into effect, and if you don’t sell them, they’re going to take them away.”
“Well,” answered mom, “when the time comes, 111 see what’s going to happen and what I have to do.”
Two months later, just before her death and after the Revolution’s failures had become all too apparent, she was asked at a family reunion how she was faring. “How do you think I’m faring?” she responded. “When the entire world says they shit on the mother of Fidel!”
Juanita Castro shared her father’s entrepreneurial bent, listing, among the many reasons for her break with her brother, a desire to run her own enterprise – “for profit” (emphasis in the original). At 15, she dropped out of school to work on the family ranch and, on the side, bought pigs to fatten up and sell. Then she opened Biràn’s first theater, the Cine Juanita. For 15 years it presented whatever films the Havana distributor deigned to send to distant Biràn, along with whatever acts she could garner a commission from, including clowns, hypnotists, and magicians.
But when the revolution’s deception hit home, she had her Howard Roark moment. Just before the cine was due to be confiscated, she gathered the local residents and made them an offer they couldn’t refuse: dismantle the building and take whatever spoils they could use. “Just as one day it arrived with me,” she declared, “so too one day it left with me.”
Seven years separated Juanita from Fidel, but only two from Raul. She was never close to Fidel, thinking him self-centered, humorless, arrogant, and incapable of empathy: “Fidel was always a whiner, especially so because as a child he was never disciplined, and he exaggerated things to get his way.” She preferred the warmth, loyalty, and sentimentality of the impish “Muso,” as she called Raul. At each of their parents’ deaths, Raul wept inconsolably. Fidel showed no emotion, declaring that there were more important challenges to be faced.
Juanita emigrated to the United States when she felt her services were no longer beneficial to the anti-Castro resistance. Then she went into business, opening up the Mini-Price Pharmacy in Miami, which she ran until the publication of her memoirs last October.
Maria Antonieta Collins, a Mexican journalist and the as-told-to coauthor of this book, smelled a scoop and decided to get her prescriptions filled at the Mini- Price. It took years of flu and migraine consultations, and the exchange of much gossip, to gain Juanita’s confidence. One day in 1997, Collins arrived with a common friend, Angelica, who always kidded around with Juanita. They sensed something was wrong. As Collins recounts, Angelica joked,
“Ay Juanita, it’s Fidel’s fault that I have to come buy contraceptives . . . this balsero [a reference to the Cuban refugees who escape on homemade rafts] I married refuses to use condoms because he didn’t use them in Cuba … And that too is Fidel’s fault!”
To our surprise, Juanita didn’t crack a smile and remained serious. “What’s wrong?” we asked.
“Today I read the latest book about Fidel, and honestly, it’s defamatory and unjust because it speaks horrors about innocent people like my parents and grandparents who had no responsibility for anything that’s happened in Cuba.”
“Write a book and tell your story,” I proposed.
“No,” she responded immediately.
On two subsequent occasions, Collins was rebuffed. But finally, in 1999, she received a call: “I’ve decided to write my memoirs . . . we start next Monday.”
For a year they collaborated. At the end Juanita’s catharsis was so sharp that she decided not to publish and held on to the manuscript indefinitely. As a friend, Collins took the news in stride; as a journalist, she watched the biggest scoop of her life slip through her fingers. Then, after ten years, in January 2009, Juanita changed her mind again and decided to publish. For eight more months they revised the manuscript. After all, much had changed in the intervening years.
Juanita’s memoirs came out in October 2009, and have not yet been translated into English. Fortunately, the prose is not Mexican-newspaperesque, a dense and idiosyncratic style that is difficult to read. It retains much of Juanita’s straightforward Cuban phrasing, though with a minimum of its picturesque vocabulary. The memoirs are hard to put down and, in spite of their 400+ pages, are a quick read if you want to use your high school Spanish. I only wish they were longer.
As the only firsthand, personal account of Fidel Castro’s family and childhood, the book is invaluable. In one fell, convincing swoop, it sweeps away the volumes of speculation and hearsay that have passed for Castro family history. Juanita sticks close to what she herself experienced, making this a memoir in the truest sense of the word. But what she directly experienced as part of the Castro inner circle is a hidden treasure. Parsimonious yet convincing, her reflections and analyses are spot on.
After setting her family’s early record straight, her memoir proceeds chronologically through Fidel’s university years, his political involvements, and his ideological evolution. She describes his falling in love, his marriage to Mirta Diaz-Balart, a Batista family intimate, his children and extra- marital affairs – building a character sketch that grows subtly and expertly with each anecdote and observation.
On July 26, 1953, Fidel and Raul stepped into history with their failed assault on the Moncada Army Barracks. Juanita recounts the family’s incredulity at finding that their sons and brothers not only were involved but had actually led the operation; the uncertainty and anguish they experienced as bits and pieces of breaking news reached Biràn; and how they mobilized every con- tact and advantage to save their family members’ lives.
The efforts continued through the trial and incarceration on the Isle of Pines. Fidel was sentenced to 26 years, Raul to 13. Though Fidel’s marriage had foundered and would soon end in divorce, Mirta made conjugal visits and even used her close contacts with President Batista to urge clemency. On May 12, 1955, Batista declared a general amnesty for political prisoners. Fidel, Raul, and their followers were free, but they had to leave the country.
Juanita is particularly illuminating on the Castro brothers’ Mexican exile, an important interlude glossed over in many accounts; and their transition from exiled failures to triumphant revolutionaries. While Fidel and Raul attracted recruits (including the T-shirt icon Ernesto “Che” Guevara), gathered guns, and acquired a boat, the Granma; she and her sisters organized all the domestic arrangements – lodging, food, transportation, meetings, and so forth – for their large entourage, helped raise money for the cause, and spent much time in Mexico City planning logistical details. Enma Castro even married a Mexican, Victor Lomeli, and became a citizen of Mexico.
At one point the Castros set up a fundraising meeting across the border in McAllen, Texas, with Cuba’s ex- president, Carlos Prio Socarras, whom Batista had overthrown. There was only one problem: Fidel’s U.S. tourist visa had been revoked because he insisted on publicly boasting that he was going to invade Cuba. So Fidel “wet backed” across the Rio Grande to Texas, where accomplices provided a change of dry clothes and a car. He walked back with $50,000 in an envelope.
The invasion of Cuba was a disaster. Angel Castro had just died, throw- ing the entire Castro family into a deep depression. The invasion force arrived at the Mexican point of embarkation by public bus, so as not to arouse suspicion. Overloaded with 82 men, an incompetent captain who failed to detect a faulty engine and brought no navigational aids other than the fixed compass, the Granma set out at the end of the 1956 hurricane season. Rough seas, poor visibility, and dead reckon- ing made Jamaica as likely a landfall as Cuba; no one was sure until the Cuban air force strafed the landing, thanks to a tip from a turncoat. Only 12 men survived.
News bulletins declared that all had been killed, and the Castro family in Biràn plunged into total despair. Hope returned when army units surrounded the Castro ranch – it meant one or both brothers were still alive. But although Fidel was hiding out in the same province, no one in the family attempted contact; the risk was too high. Juanita spent much of the time fundraising in the United States. When she returned to Cuba, she was, understandably, threatened with arrest. So she holed up in the Brazilian embassy, requesting political asylum. She knew the ambassador and his wife, Virginia Leitao da Cunha – both avid supporters of the revolution.
Then, one day, Fidel arrived at the ranch and declared Biràn “liberated Cuban territory.” The final pincer movement up the island had begun and, by January I, 1959, all of Cuba was “liberated” territory.
With the triumph of the revolution came disillusionment. It came from the most unexpected corners and faster than Juanita could have imagined. On January 10, her help was sought by a high school friend whose brother had been detained because of ties with the previous government. His life was in danger. Would Juanita, as “sister of Fidel,” resolve the matter? Juanita helped; and from that moment on, her full-time job became saving people from incarceration or summary execution simply for having been associated with the previous regime. She made it a point to nurture contacts at all the prisons, but she hit a brick wall at La Cabana, where Che Guevara ran a Cheka-style execution assembly line. Guevara not only made her wait; when he finally saw her he told her not to come around plead- ing for anyone’s life.
When Juanita complained to Fidel, he told her to be patient; the revolution was in transition and mistakes were inevitable. He assured her that all would soon improve. Like most people, she believed him. So she got into the spirit of things and applied her entrepreneurial bent to building a free rural hospital in Oriente, funded with donations. Even there, arrests and confiscations continued to take place around her, and she was disturbed by Fidel’s recommendation that Guevara inaugurate the clinic. She was named a Ministry of Health Delegate, but her public interests waned and she bought a small radio station in Havana. As part of the media, it was soon confiscated.
Meanwhile, she continued her rescue activities. One afternoon in 1960 she got a desperate call from her older sister Angelita. She’d been
arrested. Immediately Juanita rang the Minister of Justice, Augusto Martinez Sanchez, who responded sarcastically that Angelita wasn’t under arrest; she was just detained because she was “attempting to liberate a counter- revolutionary of his problems.” Juanita hung up on him, drove to the prison, and insisted on her sister’s release. The warden reluctantly complied, but later complained to Fidel who, in turn, gave Juanita a dressing-down in front of their mother,. accusing her of acting as if she were”above the Revolution.” All she could think was, “If this happens to the Castro family, what must it be like for other Cubans?”
Angelita wasn’t the only family member in trouble. Enma, Castro’s favorite sister, having recently accepted Victor Lomeli’s marriage proposal, planned a big wedding in Havana’s central cathedral and asked Fidel to give her away. A family war exploded, with mother and sisters on one side and Raul
– along with Fidel, who pretended to be above the fray – on the other. The brothers were beginning to distance the regime from religion, aggressively, and thought it would be the ultimate in bad form for el maximo lider to participate in a major religious ceremony. Guevara ranted rhetorically, “How was it possible that Fidel’s sister would dis- obey him and get married like a bourgeois? . . . Imagine the consequences for the Revolution!” If the ceremony wasn’t moved from the cathedral, Fidel threatened, he would not show up. The women reluctantly held their ground. Halfway through the ceremony, Fidel and his olive-green-uniformed entourage showed up.
By April of 1960, when this review- er’s family left Cuba, emigrating had become no simple matter. The regime imposed restrictions on travel, bank accounts, foreign exchange, and the transfer of property. Juanita’s efforts now took a turn from saving people from death and prison, to helping dissidents, the threatened, and the persecuted to escape abroad. For this she required a cover and a safe house, so she bought a boarding house in Vedado, a Havana suburb. The arrangement soon turned into a dangerous cat- and-mouse game with the G2, Cuba’s KGB, and also with various members of her family. Her mother, paying a visit, pretended not to notice what was going on. There were many close calls, but Juanita’s cover survived – just barely.
At dawn on April 17 of 1961, the day of the Bay of Pigs fiasco, Juanita went into overdrive. She received a call from a G2 double agent saying that a big roundup was under way. The prisons were filling and the overflow was being warehoused at the National Palace of Sports, the Cerro Baseball Stadium, and the giant Blanquita Theater. Her best friend and collaborator, Ely Esteva, was missing. She rescued as many people as she could by using the magic of her surname – walking in, rounding up the detainees she knew, and brazenly walking out with them.
Shortly afterward, she was approached by her friend, the wife of the Brazilian ambassador, who wanted to arrange a secret meeting in Mexico with a new “friend.” Thus began Juanita’s involvement with the CIA. She demanded only two things: she wanted (she didn’t want to be “in the pay of the CIA”), and she wanted no part in attempts on her brothers’ lives. ‘She was naive. She still wanted to aid what she believed were the revolution’s true ideals. Ignorant of the CIA’s numerous attempts to assassinate her brother, she became CIA operative “Donna,” a distant and unwitting abettor of that effort, though now with greater resources and contacts for saving lives. The arrangement became part of the CIA’s “Operation Mangosta,” a.k.a. “Project Cuba,” and messages were conveyed by means of a secret short-wave radio installed for the purpose at the boarding house.
Did she experience any remorse about betraying her brother? “No, for a very simple reason: I did not betray him. He’s the one who betrayed me … along with the thousands who suffered and fought for the [promises of the] Revolution.”
It’s incredible that she avoided full detection for nearly three years, until her departure from Cuba in June 1964. But perhaps she didn’t. One afternoon, when she was acutely sick from all the stress, she received a call from “Muso”: “I’m coming to see you because we have to talk very seriously.” She speculates that seeing his favorite sister ailing in bed probably softened Raul’s attitude about what he was about to confront her with. Then she recounts:
After kissing me, he plopped an enormous folder on the bed: “Aren’t you going to ask what it is?”
Looking him straight in the eyes, I responded simply, “No.”
We both understood each other without words; we’d been that way since we were kids.
”It’s a summary of your activities against the Revolution – just in the past few months. This is crazy. I prefer to close my eyes and not read this and to believe, as Ramon, Enma, Agustina, and Angelita say, that you’re just a half-wacky girl with loose lips and nothing more. Otherwise, if the things said about you were true, our attitude would be different.”
I couldn’t respond …
Carlos Alberto Montaner, a writer and journalist who contributed the book’s prologue, elaborates:
“In 1964 the Cuban secret services had punctually informed Raul Castro about . . . his sister’s activities..’ . . Raul was Minister of Defense. He went to see her and, in a tone that alternated between menace and affection, he explained that such behavior had to cease immediately. Juanita understood that she had to leave the country…. She was about to be incarcerated. That she wasn’t, and that she was allowed to leave for Mexico, was only because he loved her, because his fraternal affection tempered his responsibilities as military chief of the country…. Fidel would have acted differently. Fidel certainly didn’t know everything Raul knew.”
But no one knows for certain what Raul knew. He at least knew some- thing about the smuggling of people and assets out of the country. By not putting an immediate stop to it, he in effect aided Juanita’s efforts, something his brother would never have tolerated. Juanita avers that, “In hundreds of cases in which my mother and I saved people, it was thanks to his intervention – direct or indirect.” If he knew about the CIA contact and chose to ignore it, he became a tacit CIA collaborator. For all her initial naïveté, I think Juanita Castro understands this, and that it became an important factor in timing the publication of her memoirs.
She closes the book with an open and affectionate appeal to Raul for a democratic transition in Cuba so as to secure for himself an honorable place in history. She pointedly ignores Fidel.
Juanita Castro does not speculate as to what the future holds for a post-Fidel Cuba, other than expressing a desire for a peaceful transition to democracy. Plainly, she has given up on Fidel but retains great hopes for his little brother Raul, a more sympathetic and flexible pragmatist (albeit with a weakness for alcohol), without whose cooperation “Donna” would have failed in her life saving efforts. But Raul’s hands remain tied so long as Fidel remains alive, hovering over his shoulder.
Montaner, in a separate publication titled “Loss and Restoration of the Republic: Cuba at the Doors of the End of Communism,” details what is known about a post-Fidel transition. Raul, as head of the armed forces, engineered and remains in charge of the extensive foreign tourism joint ventures that provide the lion’s share of Cuba’s foreign exchange. He wants to remain in power, maintaining control of the armed forces, police, legislature, communications, and primary means of production, and normalize relations with the United States by making the peso convertible and opening up the entire island to tourism. He figures that if China can remain nominally communist and still retain normal relations with the United States, so can he.
In a show of good faith, Raul has already taken the first steps by enthusiastically cooperating with the U.S. wars on drugs and terrorism. No U.s.-bound drug shipments pass through Cuba, and Cuba has enhanced the perimeter security of Guantanamo. In return he expects the United States to control the Cuban exile community by not allow- ing it to invade Cuba – either militarily or in a giant reverse exodus – once Fidel is gone and Raul has the chance to implement modest reforms. However, unlike China, Raul has no plans to free the economy substantially.
Montaner has made many trips to Cuba and interviewed dozens of mid- to high-level bureaucrats. He reports that when in private, secure that no one is eavesdropping, these people exhibit high levels of demoralization, cynicism, depression, and selfish con- cern for themselves and their families. When asked what they will do if and when “things change,” they universally respond that they would “change with them.” Ideology has morphed into expediency.
Juanita Castro received a mixed welcome in exile. The Cuban exile community was divided into three groups: Batista backers, who hated her for being a Castro; disillusioned Castro backers, many of whom also hated her; and spies and fellow-travelers of the regime. There were many attempts on her life. Still, she dedicated all her energies and assets to the anti-Castro resistance – until the Nixon-Brezhnev detente, when “the company” insisted that she tone down her message. So she quit the CIA, opened a pharmacy, and continues her fight for liberty on her own terms.
An interesting closing chapter is entitled “The New Castros.” It lists all the Castro descendants (and there are many), telling where they now live and whether they’re for Fidel or against Fidel, or simply reconciled to reality. How that reality will change, as the ruling Castros pass from the scene, will also be very interesting to follow.