The Castro clan: torn by dysfunction and disagreements (2024)

Fidel Castro’s rule of nearly five decades split many a Cuban family between exile and solidarity with the communist revolution – including his own.

While brother Raul was his closest confidant and successor as president, sister Juana, exiled in south Florida, called Fidel a “monster” to whom she hadn’t spoken in more than four decades.

Eldest son Fidelito, long Castro’s only officially recognised child, was a nuclear scientist in Cuba. Eldest daughter Alina Fernandez, born from an affair with a married socialite who remained on the island decades later, blasted dad on exile radio from Miami.

The sprawling Castro clan, made larger by Fidel’s early extramarital affairs, also suffered from the same sorts of dysfunction and disagreements afflicting so many other families: siblings who don’t speak, adults resentful over childhood slights and murky talk of babies born out of wedlock.

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During Castro’s long illness, the tightly wrapped secrecy about his family started unravelling as his youngest sons and their mother, Dalia Soto del Valle, rallied around him.

Soto del Valle, a blonde, green-eyed former schoolteacher Castro met during Cuba’s literacy campaigns in the 1960s, was his life’s most enduring relationship. She was rarely seen in public and never alongside the “maximum leader” while he was in power.

Together more than four decades, the couple had five sons, now middle-aged. Castro, who took the nom de guerre Alejandro during the revolution, continued his homage to Alexander the Great when naming them: Alexis, Alejandro, Angelito, Alexander and Antonio.

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None were involved in politics. The best known is Antonio, or Tony. An orthopaedic surgeon and former official doctor for the island’s national baseball team, he later became vice president of both the Cuban Baseball Federation and the Swiss-based International Baseball Federation.

For decades their identities and their mother’s were state secrets known only to a small circle of loyalists.

So private was Castro about his family life, his marital status with Soto del Valle was unknown in a country where common-law unions are as ubiquitous as legal ones. Some reports said they married in a quiet civil ceremony in 1980.

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News correspondents on the island had heard whispers about “la mujer del comandante” – the comandante’s woman – but didn’t get their first glimpse of her until early 2000 when she joined a huge rally calling for the return of Elian Gonzalez, the Cuban boy rescued from an inner tube off South Florida.

Soto del Valle also made a rare public appearance the following year at the Tropicana nightclub during Cuba’s annual international cigar festival.

But she wasn’t seen publicly alongside Castro until the summer of 2010, when he made a series of appearances after a four-year absence, including his first address to the National Assembly since falling ill.

There were also dividing lines in the family tracing back to a custody battle over Fidelito even before Castro toppled Fulgencio Batista in 1959. Those divisions would only grow deeper and more bitter after the revolution, similar to the splintering in untold Cuban families with members on both sides of the Florida Straits.

Fidel’s first wife, Mirta Diaz-Balart, divorced him in the mid-1950s and took Fidelito, born in 1949 as the oldest of at least nine children Castro fathered, to the United States. Castro wanted the five-year-old kept from Mirta’s family, which included her brother Rafael Diaz-Balart, an official in Batista’s government. Two of Castro’s nephews, Mario and Lincoln Diaz-Balart, later became Florida congressmen who personified exile opposition to his regime.

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“I refuse even to think that my son may sleep a single night under the same roof sheltering my most repulsive enemies and receive on his innocent cheeks the kisses of those miserable Judases,” Castro wrote his half-sister, Lidia, in 1956.

While in Mexico preparing for the guerrilla war, Castro persuaded Mirta to send Fidelito for a two-week visit, then refused to send him back. Later, as Castro’s sisters were taking the boy for a stroll in Mexico City’s Chapultepec Park, three armed men jumped from a car and grabbed him to return him to his mother.

Even Castro’s own childhood in eastern Cuba had its family complications. Patriarch Angel Castro, who emigrated from Spain’s Galicia region and established a farmstead in a place called Biran, was still married to his first wife when he started a family with Fidel’s mother, Lina Ruz, the family maid.

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It’s unclear what happened to Maria Argota, Angel Castro’s first wife, who bore him Lidia and Pedro Emilio. But Angel and Lina ultimately had seven children together, finally marrying in a church after Fidel, their third child, was born.

Fidel’s older brother Ramon, a lifelong rancher, was occasionally seen in public, and sisters Angela and Emma also remained in Cuba. The youngest sister, Agustina, lived in Mexico many years.

Among his own offspring, Fidel only publicly recognised Fidelito, the angel-faced, blond boy from revolution-era photographs who today causes double-takes because he so resembles his father. As an adult he rose to the top post at Cuba’s Atomic Energy Commission before his father removed him for unknown reasons in the early 1990s.

Alina Fernandez was born March 3, 1953, from Castro’s love affair with Natalia Revuelta, a dark-haired, green-eyed beauty and cardiologist’s wife who became enamoured of Castro during his revolutionary struggle.

Fernandez left Cuba in 1993 wearing a wig and carrying a fake Spanish passport, later describing her feelings of abandonment in a book, Castro’s Daughter – An Exile’s Memoir of Cuba.

“I wanted him to find a solution to all the shortages: of clothes, of meat,” wrote Fernandez, who was hired by CNN to provide commentary after her father fell ill in mid-2006.

“I also wanted to ask him to give our Christmas back,” she added, referring to her father’s abolition of the holiday so workers could participate in the sugar harvest.

Fernandez’s book created a rift even among Castro relatives in exile: Juana filed suit in Spain in 1998 arguing the book defamed her and Fidel’s parents. A court ordered the publisher to pay Juana Castro US$45,000.

Castro fathered at least two more children out of wedlock: Jorge Angel Castro, who remained in Cuba and fathered at least four children of his own, including triplets; and Francisca Pupo, who migrated to the United States with her husband in 1999.

Juana Castro has told of meeting Pupo after the younger woman emigrated to the US with her husband in 1999.

Meanwhile Raul’s daughter, Mariela, married an Italian businessman and became something of a family rebel by heading Cuba’s National Centre for Sex Education and speaking out for gay rights, though her activism was later very much within the political mainstream as Cuba became more tolerant of hom*osexuality.

Despite their differences, the Castros still living on the island were said to regularly attend weekend gatherings with outdoor meals and horseback riding hosted by Raul in his role as lead organiser of family events.

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And as in many families, even the most disaffected set aside resentments during crises. Juana Castro refused to celebrate with other exiles when her brother Fidel had emergency intestinal surgery in July 2006.

“In the same way that people are demonstrating and celebrating, I’m showing sadness,” she said then. “It’s my family. It’s my brothers.”

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as:

Secrecy unable to mask dysfunction and deep division

The Castro clan: torn by dysfunction and disagreements (7)

The Castro clan: torn by dysfunction and disagreements (2024)
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