The Inside Story of Castro's Regime and Cuba's Next Leader
By Brian Latell
Palgrave Macmillan Copyright © 2005 Brian Latell
All rights reserved.
A Peasant from Biran
Pacing with restless energy at his home in Mayaguez, a verdant university town on Puerto Rico's southwestern coast, Fidel Pino Martinez reminisced with me about the Castro clan. Bougainvillea trees flashed their iridescent magenta blooms that mild winter morning, the last day of February 1986. I had taken a year-long sabbatical from the CIA to do research on Cuba and Mexico at Stanford University. I sought out people who had known the Castro brothers, wanting to learn more about their dynamic relationship.
Pino was seventy-eight, retired from a construction business he had operated with his son. Tall and taciturn, he spoke of Cuba only when coaxed, but he was not an angry or bitter exile. He was content living in Puerto Rico, the nearby island that the Cuban poet and patriot Jose Marti had memorably paired with Cuba as "two wings of the same bird." Its green hills and sugar cane fields, and especially its vibrant, garrulous people, reminded Pino of the homeland he had forever left behind a quarter of a century earlier. All of his family—his wife, siblings and their spouses and every one of the twenty-eight children they had among them—also chose exile. Many of them retained vivid memories of the Castros because the two families had been so closely linked in Oriente and Havana across the span of three generations.
Fidel Pino's youngest brother, Raul Pino Martinez—after whom Raul Castro was named—served during the late 1940s and 1950s in Santiago as attorney for the Castro brothers' parents, first for their father Angel, and later for his widow Lina Ruz and some of the Castro siblings. Raul Pino Martinez's son, also named Raul, has generously shared with me copies of intimate documents and correspondence related to the Castro family that were originally in the possession of his father and are now preserved in the Pino family collection.
In Mayaguez, Fidel Pino had vivid memories of the Castros. His knowledge of the immigrant patriarch Angel, his sons, and Biran, the remote community where the brothers grew up on a sprawling plantation, was fortified by the trick of fate that connected him to Fidel Castro. Both men were named after Pino's father, Fidel Pino Santos. The elder Pino, born in 1884, would be a lifelong friend of Angel Castro. The two had started out dirt poor in the early years of the twentieth century in the municipalities surrounding the Bay of Nipe on Cuba's northeastern coast.
Mayari, where Biran is one of fifteen barrios, or districts, and the neighboring municipalities of Banes and Antilla were at the cusp of spectacular economic and demographic expansion, as workers from all over Cuba sought opportunities in the booming local economy. American sugar and fruit interests were building large mills while clearing vast tracts for sugar cane plantations. Bananas were grown for a while, and later, valuable nickel deposits would be developed. A few towns in the area, notably Banes, became comfortable expatriate centers where American workers and managers enjoyed nearly all the amenities of home.
During the first three decades of the century, Mayari alone burgeoned from about twenty-one thousand to nearly one hundred thousand people. For industrious, shrewd, strong, and eager young men like Angel Castro and Fidel Pino Santos, fortunes could be made. There was enough cheap land so that they could assemble large tracts of their own and then profitably sell cane to the American mills close by.
With each man helping the other, the emerging potentates would become two of the richest entrepreneurs in eastern Cuba. They collaborated on many deals, Angel frequently borrowing money from the wealthier and politically more influential Pino Santos. In Mayaguez, the latter's son, Fidel Pino, told me of a huge diamond—four or five carats, he thought—that Angel had once given to his father as collateral on a loan. The diamond resided for a long time in a small vault in the Pino family home in Havana.
* * *
Outsiders, certainly the few who came from the cities to visit Biran would not easily forget the frontier settlement the Castro compound dominated. One found it barbaric "beyond belief," like "something out of Dostoevski." It was rough and isolated when Fidel and Raul were young. Outlaws roamed the hills, and it was wise to always have firearms close at hand and to know how to use them swiftly.
As many as a thousand people, nearly all of them somehow indentured to the Castros, were drawn to this rustic melting pot. They came from all over the island, from Haiti and Spain, and probably other countries as well, seeking work and little plots of their own where they could throw together a simple hut, maybe grow some sugar cane, and stake out a claim. Sexual mores were casual, unencumbered. Documented marriages were a luxury few bothered with, just as government authority of any kind rarely intruded.
Disputes were generally settled on the spot, often with sudden lunges and slashes of the ubiquitous machete. Eye-for-an-eye forms of justice and retribution were meted out. To be weak was not just disgraceful on the Cuban frontier, but dangerous. None of Angel's children has ever reported witnessing maimings or other bloody confrontations at Biran. But there can be little doubt that they occurred, most predictably when the rum flowed and the game cocks fought.
Children at Biran did not remain innocent very long. Fidel and Raul's sangfroid in later years—when ordering or presiding over executions and engaging in many forms of lethal violence—was ingrained at an early age. Most of their Cuban contemporaries, raised in more refined settings, would never be able to understand this. The brothers may even have learned to rationalize murder by observing their father Angel, who was rumored to have coldly killed men himself.
The busiest time was during the sugar harvesting season, the zafra, when Biran throbbed with frenetic labor as the merciless heat of the late spring and summer descended. Brigades of macheteros, cane cutters, sweating in long-sleeved garments and rhythmically swinging their machetes, sliced their way through the fields. First the leaves had to be stripped, then the stalks cut close to the ground, donde canta el sapo—where the toad sings—so that the best juices nearest the roots could be captured. The most skillful macheteros fairly danced through the cane rows, gracefully arching their backs, smoothly reaching high and low. There was a constant crisp metallic echo as the men sharpened their cutting blades.
The harvest began just after dawn as the morning dew mingled with the cane sap, a strong, pungent aroma of the virgin sucrose hanging heavy in the air. Creaking oxcarts, stacked high with cane stalks, groaned across dirt tracks toward a rail siding that connected to a sugar mill. During the zafra the mills churned six days a week and all through the night. Not surprisingly, it was sometimes called the "dance of the millions."
The cockfighting ring was a short distance from the Castro house. Every Sunday during the zafra, and on holidays, crowds—including children—gathered for the noisy spectacles. There was a great deal of gambling, raucous cheering and rooting, and wanton drinking of the local rum. It was Raul's favorite sport, and as a young man living at Biran he kept his own fighting cocks.
There was no church in the village, and a priest ventured out there only about once a year, to perform baptisms and other sacraments. Instead, superstitions from many cultures intersected. The song of the owl—a strident screech heard overhead during the night—or the unanswered crowing of a rooster at dawn were sure signs of bad luck. Santeria, Afro-Cuban rituals with secret rites and animal sacrifices, mixed with Haitian voodoo, had a strong hold on many, including some of the Castros' kin.
Angel Castro imported workers from Haiti through an arrangement with that country's consul in Santiago. As boys, Fidel and his brothers enjoyed visiting the Haitians in their hovels, eating roasted corn with them, playing with the children. Fidel's daughter Alina Fernandez, in exile in Miami, has written that her extravagant uncle Pedro Emilio, Angel's eldest son, once regaled her with a family secret: Pedro Emilio's half brother Ramon—as a thirteen-year old—had maintained a passionate relationship with a Haitian woman there.
Biran was such a dangerous and uninhibited place that Fidel Pino would never allow his daughter, a contemporary and friend of Raul's, to go there. A girlhood friend of Mirta Diaz Balart—the beautiful young woman from Banes whom Fidel married in 1948—told me when I met her at her home in Washington's Georgetown neighborhood that, before her marriage, even Mirta never visited Biran. Few friends of any of the Castro children were invited.
Altogether Biran resembled, perhaps, an extravagant town from one of the magical realist novels made popular by Fidel's friend, the Nobel Prize laureate, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The community's core was the family finca, the farm or plantation they called Manacas, where Castro, Ruz, Gonzalez, and Argota relatives of several generations mingled. The lively and wily Lina Ruz Gonzalez, Fidel and Raul's mother, was the daughter of itinerant laborers. As a teenage maid in Angel's house she began bearing his children, eventually seven.
The main house was a large, ramshackle wooden contraption built on pilings sunk deep in the hard red soil. Shade from an enormous tamarind tree helped cool one side; comfort could be had while lazing on the wide plantation-style porch. The house was a larger, tropical version of peasant-built shacks in Angel's native Spain. Furnishings, mostly hand-made of local woods, were sparse. There were few adornments other than life-size statues of saints, with little decoration or family memorabilia. Almost no culture—literature, art, or music—mediated the crude realities of the household.
Malodorous livestock huddled beneath the floorboards, including the family dairy cows that were milked there, and all manner of other domestic animals—pigs, chickens, turkeys, geese, and other fowl. There was a narrow second story, the "lookout," that included bedrooms. Most of the house was "in a state of chaotic untidiness," according to Leycester Coltman, Fidel's most recent English-language biographer and formerly British ambassador to Havana. Chickens hopscotched about, mostly undisturbed, even, according to the ambassador, "roosting" in several rooms.
Kitchen and bathroom facilities were rudimentary at best. There was no electricity, no motor vehicles when the Castro brothers were young. To reach the farm, Fidel told Frei Betto, a Brazilian friar of the Dominican order, in a twenty-three-hour autobiographical interview in 1985, "you had to take a train and then a horse."
There was a dairy, a bakery, a slaughterhouse, mechanical shops, a rickety little primary school, postal and telegraph facilities, and a store the Castros operated. Fidel worked there grudgingly one summer during school vacation, and Raul was behind the counter for longer periods. Angel paid police to man a small rural guard station. He ran a locomotive that looked like a streetcar with a large cattle scoop in front, on a narrow-gauge track from his property to a nearby sugar mill. On its flat front large letters proclaimed: "Angel Castro and Sons."
Gradually, Biran expanded into an alternately alluring and menacing outpost, oppressively primitive but exhilarating too. Fidel and Raul have retained fond memories of growing up there. Uncharacteristically, Fidel grew nostalgic when reminiscing about it in the interview with Betto, telling of when he was ten or twelve, riding on horseback to picturesque pine forests—the Pinares de Mayari—where Angel leased land on a high, cool plateau.
"The horses had to struggle, climbing up the steep hillsides, but once they got there, they'd stop sweating and be dry in a matter of minutes. It was marvelously cool up there, because a breeze was always blowing through the tall, dense pine trees, whose tops met, forming a kind of roof," Fidel recalled. "The water in the many brooks was ice cold, pure and delicious." Cuban geographers have said that the area around Biran and the Pinares de Mayari is perhaps the most beautiful anywhere on the island.
Fidel relished the freedom to roam Angel's ever-expanding realm, to hunt assorted game with a slingshot, bow and arrow, and a little later with firearms (he became a very good shot), and to swim in the numerous streams. A family photograph taken when he was seventeen shows him in the countryside, posed somewhat self-consciously as if he were on safari. He's alone, on one knee, wearing a pith helmet and boots, confidently holding a rifle. He has a nearly foot-long dagger in a scabbard tucked in his cartridge belt. A handsome hunting dog is at his side. He looks every bit the pampered favorite son of a prosperous gentleman landowner, not the scion of a rough peasant living in a huge chicken-infested shanty. Such contradictions abounded in the younger generation of Castros.
Raul seems to have felt an even greater affinity for Biran and has always been more proud of his heritage than Fidel. He often went home for replenishment when living in Havana, the big, alien city where, as a young man, he was never comfortable, unable to find a niche or purpose of his own. He had fled toward Biran on foot after the disastrous attack on the Moncada garrison in 1953. And he promptly returned when he and Fidel were released from prison on the Isle of Pines after serving almost two years following Moncada.
Their sister Juanita, who fled Cuba in 1964 and has lived in Miami ever since, spoke to me about her brothers in a lengthy conversation in 1986. Seated in the small office behind the pharmacy she has owned for many years, she recalled that Raul lingered at Biran after his release from prison. Fidel, however, went immediately to Havana to begin rebuilding his revolutionary movement. Juanita and others who have known the brothers often comment on Raul's sentimental nature, his need for family and friends that contrasts so strikingly with Fidel's insistence on preserving absolute personal autonomy. She is convinced that Raul became hard and unscrupulous in his twenties while under Fidel's influence.
* * *
Angel Castro was born in the rocky, northern Spanish province of Galicia, and thus, not disparagingly, referred to as a gallego. He was sent to Cuba in uniform at the time of the Spanish-American War, but never spoke to his family of his role in it.
That is understandable because he is believed to have fought against the Cuban mambises, the guerrillas who were struggling for independence and who provided the heroic models for his two sons as they waged their own campaigns to overthrow Batista. Fidel deplored his father for many reasons, but Angel's wartime role and his refusal to renounce it or to learn much about Cuban history were surely among the most profound. Angel did not become a Cuban citizen until 1941, when he was sixty-six years old.
Juanita told me he kept a gun "but no artifacts, relics, or other things to remind him of military service." She does not recall his ever expressing anti-American views. Fidel and Raul, with greater motive to assert that their father was anti-American, have never said so publicly either. All the evidence indicates, to the contrary, that Angel respected and enjoyed working with Americans—in no small part, to be sure, because his prosperity was so closely linked to his business dealings with them. Juanita is convinced that if her father had survived to live under the revolution, he would have been "Fidel's enemy."
After the war Angel started out at an uncle's tile factory in Santa Clara, in the middle of the island, but, according to Juanita, soon migrated east toward greater opportunity. Settling in northern Oriente he began to acquire teams of oxen and organize groups of workers to provide hauling and other services for the American companies. They cleared forest lands that would become United Fruit cane fields and sold firewood to fuel the mills. The company also employed him as a warehouse man before he began to acquire lands of his own. In all of this enterprise Angel demonstrated exceptional leadership qualities—just as Fidel and Raul later would—that put him in charge of a steadily growing force of unskilled laborers.
Fidel Pino told me during our discussions in Mayaguez that his father and Angel were like brothers. Nine years older than the elder Pino, Castro nevertheless deferred to his more sophisticated and better educated friend, who was a mentor of sorts. Pino Santos had been born in Cuba, so he could help the immigrant Angel understand its Creole and tropical peculiarities. The two men trusted each other and collaborated for many years, even as their social paths inevitably diverged. Pino Santos wanted to advance socially and politically as he had financially. He and his son Mario would become politically prominent in Santiago and later win seats in the national congress. For the uneducated and barely literate Angel, however, the microcosm he created at Biran would always suffice.
It was probably more than he had ever hoped to acquire. He had no interest in owning city houses, as Pino Santos did, or in melding into society circles where he would have no idea what to say or do. He was unassuming, thoroughly and contentedly a rustic. Fidel told the Brazilian priest Betto that his parents had no social life, maintaining relations only with people like themselves. "They worked all the time." Visitors rarely came. Fidel Pino recalled that during the elder Castro's few visits to Santiago—and even rarer ones to Havana—he would stay with the Pino family where he was at ease.
The patriarch had little time for his sons, and no affection was shared. Amado Llorente, a Spanish Jesuit who was Fidel's favorite teacher at Belen, the elite Havana preparatory school he attended as a teenager, told me he never met Angel. Nor could the priest, whom I interviewed at a retreat house in Miami, remember either of Fidel's parents attending his graduation. (Continues...)
Excerpted from After Fidel by Brian Latell. Copyright © 2005 Brian Latell. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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