Castro: The early years
BEFORE THE CASTROS LED CUBA
Castro: The early years
A visit to the childhood home of Fidel and Raúl Castro offers a glimpse
into what created Cuba's leaders
By Ray Sánchez
June 10, 2007
Biran, Cuba · A short drive from Raúl and Fidel Castro's birthplace,
their half-brother contemplated Cuba's closely watched transition of power.
"Raúl's still there, but Fidel gives the orders," said Martín Castro,
77, sitting in a rocking chair in his modest, wood-frame home. "The life
he led was too much for anyone. He needs to take it easy. It's time for
Martín Castro is family, but he holds no position in the Communist Party
hierarchy and has no special knowledge of his older brother's condition
other than the news his eldest brother, Ramón Castro, brings when he
visits. In the words of one neighbor, Martín Castro is "Fidel Castro's
little brother," a simple guajiro, or peasant, from Biran.
In more than four decades in power, Fidel Castro has not allowed the
world — even those in his inner circle — to know much beyond
speculation about him. So, a look at the Castro brothers' early years on
the rambling family estate offers some insight into the leadership
transition. It also illustrates how some of the most intimate details of
their lives have been molded to support the revolution they launched a
Ten months ago, emergency surgery for what is thought to be
diverticulitis forced Fidel Castro to temporarily cede power to younger
brother Raúl, 75, the defense minister. His illness is a state secret.
Only last month, in an editorial in the state-run newspaper Granma,
Fidel Castro, 80, acknowledged he had undergone several intestinal
operations and months of intravenous feedings but said he was getting
This week Cuban television broadcast a 50-minute interview with Fidel
Castro, his first extended appearance since July. He maintains a
presence through frequent editorials in Granma. He has criticized
American bio-fuel plans and the Bush administration's handling of
reputed terrorist Luis Posada Carriles, but said little about everyday
problems plaguing ordinary Cubans. His absence at the May Day rally
quelled talk of a return — for now.
`Fidel is in charge'
Still, those who know the restless revolutionary icon say that Fidel
Castro will not depart easily.
Juan Socarras, 86, worked on the Castro family compound for four
decades. He and his wife, Dalia Tomás, 82, stood outside their wooden
house across the unpaved road from the Castro farm and laughed at the
thought of anyone other than Fidel Castro running the country.
"Fidel is in charge," he said. "It's always been that way."
"Raúl is the president now, but Fidel runs things from his bed,"
insisted Tomás, who was born on the Castro family estate.
Fidel Castro, they agreed, wouldn't have it any other way.
As a boy, Castro liked telling other kids what position to play during
pickup baseball games, Socarras said. He always pitched. A young Fidel
Castro used to walk around with a hunting rifle, aiming at his mother's
duck for target practice. His brothers as well as other children on the
farm always deferred to him.
"No one tells Fidel what to do," Socarras said.
In the first months after assuming power, with Fidel Castro said to be
critically ill, Raúl Castro and Cuba's new leadership appeared to
encourage greater economic reforms and debate on how to combat
corruption and inefficiency in the state-run economy. The
state-controlled press carried stories on corruption by state workers.
Raúl Castro even offered to negotiate with Washington to end decades of
But, with Fidel Castro's recovery in recent months, the tone has changed.
"I'm suspecting there's a greater reluctance by the new leadership to
continue moving out the way they were," said Brian Latell, a former CIA
analyst and author of After Fidel: The Inside Story of Castro's Regime
and Cuba's Next Leader. "Is Raúl ever going to be able and willing to
say to Fidel, `Enough,' and seize the initiative even if Fidel is alive
and protesting? Most people would say, `No, Raúl could never do that.'
I'm not so sure."
The Castro family
Angel Castro, the family patriarch, arrived in Cuba from Galicia in the
mid-1890s, a recruit in Spain's colonial army. Over time, he acquired
26,000 acres of sugar plantations, forests and mountains in the
picturesque valley called the Mayari, a region where the United Fruit
Co., a Boston-based corporate giant, exercised political and economic
Virtually untouchable until the revolution, United Fruit exploited
thousands of peasant workers, helping to awaken the Castro brothers
Angel Castro was married and had fathered two children when he became
involved with Lina Ruz, one of the household servants. By some accounts,
Ruz's first three children by Castro — Angela, Ramón and Fidel — were
born before the couple married. Raúl and three sisters — Augustina,
Enma and Juanita, who has lived in Miami since 1964 — were born later.
Martín Castro's mother was Generosa Mendoza, whose family lived and
worked on the Castro farm.
The sprawling family estate was turned into a museum in 2002, local
historian Antonio Lopez said. Fidel Castro eventually could return to
his native Holguin Province as the island's elder statesman and
behind-the-scenes leader, Lopez said, although El Comandante seems
reluctant to move that far from national power.
"Fidel might not only come for his birthday, but he might also like to
come back and live here," Lopez said. "This is where he was born. This
place helped to form him. … It must bring back wonderful memories."
Latell, the analyst and author, isn't sure the memories were all
wonderful. Fidel Castro was relegated to another house on the family
estate for part of his childhood, Latell said. He was 17 before his
father recognized him as a legitimate son, leaving the future ruler with
bitter, confusing memories, Latell said.
"I think it's very painful for him, and he doesn't want to admit it,
especially in terms of the person he became after he became a guerrilla,
a guerrilla hero and then the leader of Cuba," Latell said.
After the revolution, Martín Castro said, he politely declined his
brothers' offer of a house in Havana. "I'm not a politician," he said.
"I work the land."
Castros and revolution
To this day, Martín Castro lives modestly amid the lush sugarcane and
cattle grazing fields of Cuba's eastern farming country.
Not far away, the family estate was one of the first properties Fidel
Castro nationalized. During a visit to his mother in Biran in December
1958, shortly before the victory of his rebels over the Batista regime,
Fidel Castro ordered the expropriation of the estate as one of the first
radical agrarian reform measures of his revolution. Reports of how his
mother reacted vary greatly.
In an often-repeated story, Lina Ruz reached for her Winchester rifle,
intending to end a takeover when farm workers swarmed the family's
orange groves. She eventually calmed down and was allowed to live on the
estate until she died in 1963.
"We don't recognize that as true," said Florencio Martín, director of
the estate's museum. "Ma
ybe she objected initially. When the reasons
were explained to her, she obliged. She said, `If that is what Fidel and
Raúl have decided, I agree with it.'"
He denied that Castro's mother took up arms against laborers.
"It was not too hard to convince her to give up the farm in an attempt
to rid the country of the big latifundios and private property on the
island," Martín said, referring to the large landowners.
Tomás recalled Lina Ruz' reaction differently.
"She was furious that day," Tomás said of Fidel's mother. "She didn't
agree with the decision at all." But Tomás said she didn't recall Ruz
reaching for the .38-caliber revolver or Winchester rifle she usually
carried with her.
The family legacy
Decades later, Fidel and Raúl Castro initially opposed turning the
family compound into a museum, according to site officials. "Fidel
detests the cult of personality," said Lopez, adding that the Castro
brothers have provided little assistance in the restoration of the site.
Outside the private schoolhouse where the Castro children learned to
read, a white angel carved of Italian marble watches over the tombs of
their parents and maternal grandparents, Dominga and Francisco Ruz.
"As you can see, it is a simple pantheon," said Martín, the museum
director. "Maybe in another part of the world you would find the parents
of a man such as Fidel buried in a grand monument. This is a simple one,
built with the modesty that our comandante and his brother Raúl have
Martín said it hasn't been disclosed where Fidel Castro will be interred
some day. Raúl Castro is to be laid to rest in the former Oriente
province, where he commanded guerrilla troops during the revolution.
"We know that Raúl will be buried in a pantheon in the `second front' in
the Sierra," he said. "But nothing has ever been said about the
comandante. That's a state secret. We wish it were here. That would make
us very happy."
A Cuban security official who followed Martín closely during a tour of
the site quickly added: "Hopefully that day will never come."
"Yes, hopefully that day will never come," Martín repeated.
Ray Sánchez can be reached at email@example.com.