Fidel Castro lived like a king in Cuba, book claims
Former bodyguard Juan Reinaldo Sánchez writes that leader ran country
like a cross between medieval overlord and Louis XV
The Guardian, Wednesday 21 May 2014
Fidel Castro lived like a king with his own private yacht, a luxury
Caribbean island getaway complete with dolphins and a turtle farm, and
travelled with two personal blood donors, a new book claims.
In La Vie Cachée de Fidel Castro (Fidel Castro's Hidden Life), former
bodyguard Juan Reinaldo Sánchez, a member of Castro's elite inner
circle, says the Cuban leader ran the country as his personal fiefdom
like a cross between a medieval overlord and Louis XV.
Sánchez, who was part of Castro's praetorian guard for 17 years,
describes a charismatic and intelligent but manipulative, cold-blooded,
egocentric Castro prone to foot-stamping temper tantrums. He claims the
vast majority of Cubans were unaware their leader enjoyed a lifestyle
beyond the dreams of many Cubans and at odds with the sacrifices he
demanded of them.
"Contrary to what he has always said, Fidel has never renounced
capitalist comforts or chosen to live in austerity. Au contraire, his
mode de vie is that of a capitalist without any kind of limit," he
writes. "He has never considered that he is obliged by his speech to
follow the austere lifestyle of a good revolutionary."
Sánchez claims he suffered Castro's ruthlessness first hand when he fell
out of favour, was branded a traitor, "thrown in jail like a dog",
tortured and left in a cockroach infested cell, after asking to retire.
Released from prison, Sánchez followed the well-worn route of Cuban
exiles to America in 2008. "Until the turn in the 1990s I'd never asked
too many questions about the workings of the system … that's the problem
with military people ... as a good soldier, I did my job and my best and
that was enough to make me happy," he writes.
The book, published on Wednesday, has been written with French
journalist Axel Gyldén, a senior reporter at L'Express magazine. Gyldén
admits Sánchez has a large axe to grind with Castro, but insists he has
checked the Cuban's story.
"This is the first time someone from Castro's intimate circle, someone
who was part of the system and a first-hand witness to these events, has
spoken. It changes the image we have of Fidel Castro and not just how
his lifestyle contradicts his words, but of Castro's psychology and
motivations," Gyldén told the Guardian.
This is not the first time it has been claimed that Castro enjoys great
wealth. In 2006 Forbes magazine listed the Cuban leader in its top 10
richest "Kings, Queens and Dictators", citing unnamed officials who
claimed Castro had amassed a fortune by skimming profits from a network
of state-owned companies. The Cuban leader vehemently denied the report.
Castro's long reign ended in 2006 when he was stricken with what was
believed to be diverticulitis, an intestinal ailment, and handed power
to his younger brother Raúl, who had served as defence minister. He
officially ceded power to Raúl in 2008.
Fidel continued penning columns for the communist party newspaper Granma
but gradually vanished from public view, fuelling rumours he had died,
only to surface for occasional, fleeting appearances. Raul has made
cautious economic reforms but kept tight control.
Visitors such as Ignacio Ramonet, the French journalist who has
interviewed Castro at length, have depicted an austere lifestyle of
reading, exercise, simple meals and modest home comforts.
But Sánchez, now 65 and living in America, claims Castro enjoyed a
private island, Cayo Piedra, south of the Bay of Pigs, scene of the
failed CIA-sponsored invasion of 1961, describing it as a "garden of
Eden" where he entertained selected guests including the writer Gabríel
Garcia Márquez, and enjoyed spear-fishing.
The former bodyguard says Castro sailed to the island on his luxury
yacht, the Aquarama II, fitted out with rare Angolan wood and powered by
four motors sent by the Soviet president Leonid Brezhnev.
"Castro would sit in his large black leather director's armchair ... a
glass of Chivas Regal on the rocks (his favourite drink) in his hand,"
Other presidential properties, he writes, included an "immense" estate
in Havana complete with rooftop bowling alley, basketball court and
fully equipped medical centre, and a luxury bungalow with private marina
on the coast.
"Fidel Castro also let it be known and suggested that the revolution
gave him no rest, no time for pleasure and that he ignored, indeed
despised, the bourgeois concept of holidays. He lies," he adds.
Ann Louise Bardach, a veteran Cuba chronicler who has interviewed
Castro, said that as a lifelong hypochondriac he enjoyed the best food
and medical care but did not have a lavish lifestyle. He was born into
money and went into politics for power, she said. "He didn't do it for
the money. He's not swinging from the chandeliers."
His current home, just outside Havana, had four bedrooms and would in
the west be considered middle or upper-middle class, she said. Focusing
on any material advantage he may enjoy missed a larger point, said
Bardach, author of Without Fidel: a death foretold in Miami, Havana and
Washington. "He owns the island of Cuba. It's his personal fiefdom."
Sánchez says Castro's dolce vita was a "crazy privilege" while Cubans
suffered serious hardship in the 1990s as the economy "collapsed like a
house of cards" after the disintegration of the Soviet Union and eastern
bloc with which Havana had done almost 80% of its foreign business.
His compatriots, he says, were also unaware of their leader's
complicated love life, his womanising and subsequent tribe of at least
nine children, not least because Cuban media was forbidden to mention them.
The Cuban leader kept a gun at his feet when travelling in his Mercedes
and never went anywhere without at least ten bodyguards, including two
"blood donors". At home he would get up late, and start work arround
midday "after a frugal breakast".
"His favourite film that he saw I don't know how many times was the
interminable and soporific Soviet version of Tolstoy's War and
Peace...which lasted at least five hours."
He recalls how Castro bugged everyone, including Hugo Chávez, and
insisted his bodyguard jot down everything he did in a notebook "for
Sánchez says for nearly two decades he saw more of Castro than his own
family. "He was a god. I drank all his words, believed all he said,
followed him everywhere and would have died for him," he writes.
He claims he finally realised that Castro considered Cuba "belonged" to him.
"He was its master in the manner of a 19th Century landowner. For him
wealth was above all an instrument of power, of political survival, of
Recalling how Castro kept Angolan diamonds in a Cohiba cigar box, he
writes: "Sometimes, Fidel had a little of the mentality of a pirate of
La Vie Cachée de Fidel Castro is published by Michel Lafon on Wednesday.
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