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Rhetoric during and after the Cold War years has painted starkly contrasting portraits of Cuba’s Fidel Castro: an unblemished idealist on the one hand, a ruthless dictator on the other. This insightful book, the most intimate and dispassionate biography of the revolutionary leader to date, shows that neither assessment is true.
Leycester Coltman, British ambassador to Cuba in the early 1990s, came as close to personal friendship with Castro as any foreigner was permitted. With frequent contact and regular conversations, Coltman was in a unique position to observe the dictator’s personality in both public and private situations. Here he presents a close-up view of the man who for half a century has been loved, admired, feared, and hated, but seldom really understood.
Coltman chronicles the events of the Cuban leader’s extraordinary life from the political activism of his university days in Havana to periods of exile, imprisonment, and guerilla warfare alongside Che Guevara, to the uncertainties of his old age. Drawing on personal observation and archival sources in Cuba and abroad, Coltman explores the contradiction between the private character and the public reputation, and highlights the complexities of the consummate actor who continues to play a crucial role on the international stage.
In July 1992 Fidel Castro, then aged sixty-four, visited for the first time the small stone house where his father was born, in the north-west of Spain. The occasion made him drop for a few moments his usual insistence on not talking about his family and private life. How did he feel entering his father's house? 'Full of love ... The old man used to feel homesick. He used to tell me things about when he was a soldier in Cuba during the war with the United States. He wanted to return, and he did. My father was very poor but a hard worker. He had a group of peasants. There was one who looked after the cattle and he had sciatica. By then things had improved and this man became a cook in the house ... He had a bad temper. I always remember that he reprimanded us. I also remember my father's sadness. But why am I telling you this ...?'
Angel Castro, Fidel's father, was born in 1875 to a peasant family in rural Galicia, one of the poorest regions of Spain. As a young man Angel was tough, self-reliant, taciturn, hard-working and shrewd. But being barely literate and owning no land, he had no alternative but to work for wealthier farmers nearby as a hired agricultural labourer.
In 1895, when Angel was twenty, the leaders of the independence movement in Cuba launched the final stage of the war against Spanish rule. Cuba was the most valuable and prized part of what remained of Spain's once mighty overseas empire. The government in Madrid was determined not to let it go. More and more troops were shipped to Cuba in the effort to crush the insurrection. Angel Castro was conscripted into the army and sent to Cuba.
Cuba was a long way from Spain, but very close to the United States. Public opinion in the United States, whipped up by press reports of Spanish atrocities, increasingly favoured intervention to end Spanish rule. In 1898 a massive explosion destroyed the American battleship Maine in Havana harbour, with heavy loss of life. It was probably an accident; but the US government blamed the Spanish authorities, declared war on Spain and soon inflicted a crushing defeat on the Spanish navy. The Spanish land forces, exhausted by three years of bitter fighting against the rebel guerrillas, now also had to face a fresh and eager American expeditionary force which disembarked in Cuba. Spain was soon forced to surrender to the United States and handed over to them the administration of Cuba. The American flag, not the flag of an independent Cuba, was raised over the Governor's palace in Santiago. The Spanish administrators and military, including Angel Castro, returned to Spain. Many Spanish landowners also left, selling their estates and properties at knock-down prices, usually to Americans. The Spaniards and the Cubans now had something in common: they both felt they had been cheated and humiliated by the United States. It was a humiliation which Fidel would later feel as keenly as if he had suffered it in person.
In Washington there were conflicting views on whether to annex Cuba to the Union or to allow independence. The view prevailed that a friendly independent Cuba, open to American capital and subject to American influence, would be preferable to a reluctant and rebellious dependency. In 1902, after four years of direct United States rule, during which new institutions were created on the American model, the independent Republic of Cuba was finally proclaimed. But its independence was limited. The United States retained a large naval base at Guantanamo and the right, enshrined in the Cuban constitution at American insistence under the so-called Platt Amendment, to intervene should its interests in Cuba be threatened. A commercial treaty ensured favourable American access to the Cuban market.
With peace and American tutelage, Cuba seemed set to enjoy economic growth and prosperity. Labour was in short supply. Like thousands of other Galicians in these years Angel Castro, who had been encouraged by what he had seen of Cuba as a soldier, decided to emigrate. An uncle had emigrated to Cuba a few years earlier.
If in the United States ambitious immigrants went west, in Cuba they were more likely to go east. Oriente, the large easternmost province of Cuba, was the most undeveloped part of the island, but it had great agricultural and mineral potential. Inhabited largely by former slaves, with a tradition of unruliness and rebellion, the province had been devastated by the successive phases of the independence wars. American companies, notably United Fruit, had bought vast tracts of land, cleared forest and built sugar mills, railways and roads.
Angel Castro did various jobs, sometimes as an employee of the Nipe Bay Railway Company, a subsidiary of United Fruit, and sometimes on his own. During some of his early years he travelled around the countryside with a cart, selling lemonade from a barrel to labourers working in the sugar cane plantations and woodlands. Later he set up a store in the town of Guaro, selling various goods and equipment needed by peasants in the area. With the profits from these activities he was able to lease from United Fruit some land planted with sugar cane. He employed a group of peasants, mostly recent immigrants, to work the plantation. He also hired them out to do other jobs such as loading transport or felling timber. He acquired a small sawmill, selling wood to the nearby sugar mills. According to some accounts he was no respecter of legal niceties, often pinching equipment from United Fruit installations. He took the view that Cuba had been stolen from Spain by the Americans, and that there was no harm in taking a few bits and pieces back.
By hard work and austere living he accumulated enough money to achieve his ambition of becoming a landowner. He bought a farm called Biran, some ten miles from the Bay of Nipe on the north coast, and gradually expanded it over the years, sometimes (according to one of his neighbours) by quietly moving his border posts during the night. It was mostly good flat land, suitable for sugar cane, not far from a dirt road and the railway line used to transport cane to the sugar mills. He built a large wooden house, on stilts so that animals could shelter under the house as in Galicia. It had wide verandas and large bedrooms. Angel bred cattle and various types of poultry, planted sugar cane, maize and other crops, married a Cuban schoolteacher called Maria Luisa Argota and had two children, Pedro Emilio and Lidia. He employed several servants at the farmstead.
After a few years of marriage Maria Luisa left Biran, Angel having turned his attention to a girl called Lina Ruz, who was working in the household as a maid and cook. Lina was thirty years younger than Angel. She had been born in Pinar del Rio, at the westernmost end of Cuba. Her parents had travelled with their large family through almost the whole length of the island, sometimes in an ox-drawn cart, ending up near Biran. There her father earned a meagre living transporting cane by cart to the sugar mills. Lina's father asked Don Angel to employ one of his daughters. Angel chose Lina, then aged about fifteen. On Maria Luisa's departure Lina took over the running of the house and was treated as Angel's wife. She gave birth to three sons and four daughters. After Angela and Ramon came her third child, Fidel, born on 13 August 1927.
Shortly before Fidel's birth, Angel became friendly with a businessman and local politician called Fidel Pino. Angel lent money to Pino, who had lost a fortune in a failed speculation. Angel nevertheless looked up to Pino as a man of higher social status. Angel calculated that it would serve his interests to have Pino as godfather to his third son. Hence the name Fidel. But Fidel Pino showed little interest. After all, the boy's parents were not even properly married. For the baptism to take place Angel needed to get a priest and the prospective godfather together in a church with the child. This never happened. It was not until seven years later that Fidel Castro was baptised, with a different godfather.
Fidel's earliest years were mostly happy and problem-free. He could run around wherever he wanted with his brothers and sisters. The farm animals and surrounding countryside provided plenty of entertainment. He swam in a nearby river and tried to catch birds using a sling-shot or bow and arrow. He played also with other children, including the children of the black labourers, mostly Haitian immigrants, who lived in palm-thatched huts near the railway line. But everyone knew that he was the son of the big boss, Don Angel, and treated him accordingly. He got used to always getting his way. On the rare occasions when he did not, he was liable to throw a tantrum. When Ramon or Fidel behaved badly, their mother sometimes threatened to beat them with a belt, but Fidel usually escaped punishment. He learnt that if he listened to his mother's scoldings with a serious expression, and did not contradict her, her anger quickly passed.
His father, who was already fifty-two when Fidel was born, was rather remote and uncommunicative, usually busy with the running of the farm, and sometimes showing an explosive temper, for example when he lost at dominoes. In later years, when Fidel had become a Marxist, he sometimes referred to his father in disparaging terms. He wanted to distance himself politically from a landowner who exploited peasants and paid no taxes. He once recounted how as a child he had seen his father opening his safe at election time to hand out money to the traditional fixers whose job was to bring out the vote for the government. But it is unlikely that he felt any disapproval at the time. The balance of evidence, including statements by Angel's other children, is that there was never a seriously bad relationship between Fidel and his father. Angel ran his farm in a typically macho authoritarian style, but he was usually indulgent towards his children. By the standards of most Cuban landowners he was also good-natured towards his workers. Fidel later recalled that his father had his cane-fields weeded more often than was necessary, in order to give work to cane-cutters from neighbouring American-owned plantations who were left without employment during the months between harvests. 'I can't recall his ever failing to find a solution whenever somebody came to him for help. Sometimes he grumbled and complained but his generosity always got the upper hand.'
Despite Angel's occasional angry rebukes, Fidel was never ill-treated as a child. If anything, he was spoiled. The earliest photographs of him show a well-scrubbed little boy with a self-satisfied expression and expensive-looking clothes, more Little Lord Fauntleroy than peasant boy. When dressed up like this he must have offered a stark contrast to his bare-footed Haitian playmates. A later photograph shows little Fidel in a Panama hat, sitting proudly on a tractor. In quarrels with his father Fidel nearly always ended up getting his way. His home life was almost certainly not, as some biographers have speculated, a cause of his subsequent rebelliousness against authority figures.
During Fidel's childhood Angel's prosperity continued to grow. In addition to the 1,800 hectares he owned, he leased a further 10,000 hectares mainly from United Fruit, making his farm one of the biggest in the region. Most of this additional land was hilly and unsuitable for sugar cane, but it could be used for timber and grazing animals. As the household expanded, new rooms and an office were added to the house. Several new farm buildings were put up. There was a cock-pit near the house where on Sundays during the cane harvest workers could spend their wages on cock-fights, remaining penniless if they lost and getting drunk on rum if they won. During the harvest some 600 labourers worked on the estate. Despite their wealth, Angel and Lina did not acquire any middle-class attitudes. They made no pretence of having social graces or intellectual interests. Most of the rooms in the house were in a state of chaotic untidiness, with chickens roosting in several of them. The family and the numerous servants often ate meals together and retained their rough country manners.
Near the farmstead there was a one-room hut which served as a schoolroom. A young woman teacher, employed by the state, came from Santiago, the regional capital, to give lessons to some twenty local children of different ages. Most of the children were poor and would stop going to the schoolroom as soon as they were old enough to do manual work. From the age of about three Fidel attended the school, together with his elder brother Ramon and sister Angela. Being the youngest pupil he was put in a chair at the front of the class. The children were taught some reading, writing and arithmetic, and kept occupied with activities such as singing the national anthem. In the class Fidel would not sit still and was quarrelsome, often trying to defy the teacher's authority. Sometimes, when the teacher annoyed him, he would yell at her and then run home as fast as he could.
There was no religious instruction in the school and no nearby church. Fidel's only early contact with religion was through his mother. She prayed vigorously every day, trying to persuade various saints to fulfil her wishes. There was probably an element of Afro-Cuban santeria (devotion to the saints) in Lina's concept of Christianity. Reminiscing later about his childhood, Castro said he did not know whether his father had any religious convictions; his father simply never mentioned the subject.
When Fidel was aged six, he was sent with his sister Angela (and later also Ramon) to live with the teacher in Santiago. The teacher had told Fidel's parents that he was clever and that she could prepare him at home to go later to a good school in Santiago. In later years Fidel said he thought the teacher's main interest was to get her hands on the 40 pesos a month (a peso was equivalent to a dollar) which his father sent to cover his board and lodging. He disliked intensely being away from home. The teacher lived in a small, damp, dilapidated house, together with her father and sister, neither of whom had any income. Five people (later six) had to live off the teacher's salary, which was meagre and often paid late, and the money received from Angel Castro. Fidel complained that he never had enough to eat. He was frequently reprimanded, told not to shout and not to beg, and was sometimes spanked. Teaching was sporadic and consisted mainly of practising handwriting and learning arithmetical tables.
For a time, Fidel's parents brushed aside his complaints about the way he was treated by the teacher. But eventually the children's scraggy appearance made their mother realise that something was indeed wrong. They were brought back to live at home in Biran. Angel remonstrated with the teacher.
Excerpted from The Real Fidel Castro by Leycester Coltman Excerpted by permission.
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