09.20.09

Castro Family Values

A first wife exiled for decades and a "tribe" of children by several women. An exclusive excerpt from Ann Louise Bardach’s new book, Without Fidel, offers glimpses into Fidel Castro's off-limits personal life.

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.

When Fidelito mishandled Cuba’s nuclear-power program, Castro had him fired. “There was no resignation,” Castro declared. “He was fired for incompetence. We don’t have a monarchy here.”

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.

Ann Louise Bardach: The Day Castro Wept

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.

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Without Fidel: A Death Foretold in Miami, Havana, and Washington. By Ann Louise Bardach. 352 pages. Scribner. $30. ()

“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.

Myrta’s return reportedly greatly cheered Fidel. After all, she had been his first love—but not least because of the distress it caused her Miami relatives. In a rare exception to Castro family privacy policy, Cuba released a photograph of a radiant-looking Myrta with Fidelito at the inauguration of the Nanoscience/ Nanotechnology Summit in late 2008.

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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.