Authors: Juan Sanchez
Tags: #Biographies & Memoirs, #History, #Americas, #Caribbean & West Indies, #Cuba, #World
This edition first published 2015
First published in France under the title
La vie cachée de Fidel Castro
by Editions Michel Lafon.
The Hill, Stroud
Gloucestershire, GL5 4EP
Copyright © 2014 by Juan Reinaldo Sánchez. Translation © 2015 by Catherine Spencer.
The right of Juan Reinaldo Sánchez to be identified as the Author of this work has been asserted in accordance with the Copyrights, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
ISBN 9781445648156 (PRINT)
ISBN 9781445648163 (eBOOK)
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reprinted or reproduced or utilised in any form or by any electronic, mechanical or other means, now known or hereafter invented, including photocopying and recording, or in any information storage or retrieval system, without the permission in writing from the Publishers.
British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data.
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.
Designed by Steven Seighman.
Printed in the UK.
To my mother, the light of my life, shining example of humility and devotion. To my children Aliette and Ernesto. To their mother, who so often played the role of father in my absence. To my uncle Manuel, that “dad” who passed on extraordinary ethical values to me. To my grandparents Ángela and Crespo, guardian angels whose presence I still feel. To my grandchildren and to my brother. And to all those who supported me in difficult times. May God bless you all.
Fidel Castro’s yacht was sailing in the Caribbean Sea, on the azure waters off the southern coast of Cuba. We had weighed anchor just ten minutes earlier, and already white dolphins had come to join us. A school of nine or ten of them were patrolling on the starboard side, right next to the hull, while another group streamed along in our wake, thirty yards or so behind the rear port side, looking for all the world like the motorized escort of a head of state on an official visit.
“The reinforcements are here—you can go and relax,” I said to Gabriel Gallegos, pointing to the multitudes of dorsal swimmers cleaving through the water at high speed.
My colleague smiled at my quip. Three minutes later, however, the unpredictable creatures changed direction and moved off, disappearing into the horizon.
“No sooner do they get here than they leave! What lack of professionalism . . . ,” Gabriel joked in his turn.
Neither of us were strangers to professionalism. We had both joined the personal security team of the Commander thirteen years earlier, in 1977—and in Cuba, nothing is more “professional,” more developed, or more important, than the protection of the head of state. Fidel had only to make the smallest excursion out to sea on a simple fishing or underwater hunting trip for an impressive apparatus of military defense to come into operation. And so
—Fidel Castro’s yacht—was unfailingly escorted by
, two powerful, virtually identical fifty-five-foot-long speedboats, one of which was kitted out with every form of medical care to deal with the slightest health problem that might arise.
The ten members of Fidel’s personal guard, the elite corps to which I belonged, were divided among these three vessels— just as, on land, we were divided among three cars. The boats were all equipped with heavy machine guns and stocks of grenades, Kalashnikov AK-47 rifles, and ammunition to prepare us for any eventuality. Since the start of the Cuban Revolution, Fidel Castro had lived under the threat of attack: the CIA admitted it had planned hundreds of assassination attempts, involving poison or booby-trapped pens and cigars.
A bit farther out to sea, a lifeguard patroller was also deployed, providing maritime and air radar surveillance of the zone and with instructions to intercept any boat coming within at least three sea miles of
. The Cuban air force was also involved: at the Santa Clara air base, sixty or so miles away, a fighter pilot in combat gear was kept on red alert, ready at any moment to jump into his Russian-made MiG-29 to take off in less than two minutes and reach
at supersonic speed.
It was a sunny day. Nothing surprising about that: it was the middle of summer, 1990, the thirty-second year of the reign of Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz, then sixty-three years old. The Berlin wall had come down the previous autumn; the American president George W. Bush was getting ready to launch Operation Desert Storm; and, for his part, Fidel Castro was sailing toward his private, top-secret island, Cayo Piedra, on board the only luxury yacht in the republic of Cuba.
Put into service in the early 1970s,
was an elegant vessel with a ninety-foot white hull, a larger replica of
, the racing yacht that had been confiscated from someone involved in the regime of Fulgencio Batista—overturned on January 1, 1959, by the Cuban Revolution that had begun two and a half years earlier in the jungle of the Sierra Maestra by Fidel and sixty or so
. In addition to the two double cabins—one of which, Fidel’s, was equipped with a private bathroom—the vessel could sleep twelve other people. The six armchairs in the main sitting room could be converted into beds, and there were two berths in the radio communication room and four more in the cabin reserved for the crew, at the bow. Like all self-respecting yachts,
had all mod cons: air-conditioning, two bathrooms, a toilet, television, and a bar.
Compared with the playthings of contemporary Russian and Saudi Arabian nouveaux riches who cruise across the Caribbean or the Mediterranean,
, however handsomely done up in its “vintage” style, would probably seem outdated. But in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, this luxury yacht, entirely decorated in exotic wood imported from Angola, could hold its own against any of those moored in the marinas of the Bahamas or Saint-Tropez. Indeed, it was even clearly superior, because of its power. Its four engines, given to Fidel Castro by Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, were identical to those fitted on Soviet navy patrollers. At full throttle, they propelled
at the phenomenal, unbeatable speed of forty-two knots, or about forty-eight miles an hour.
Hardly anyone in Cuba knew of the existence of this yacht, its principal mooring a private creek invisible and inaccessible to ordinary mortals on the eastern side of the famous Bay of Pigs, around ninety miles southeast of Havana. Since the 1960s, Fidel’s private marina had been hidden here, in the middle of a military zone and under close surveillance. The site, named La Caleta del Rosario, also housed one of his numerous vacation homes and, in an extension, a small personal museum devoted to Fidel’s fishing trophies.
It was a journey of forty-five minutes from this marina to Cayo Piedra, the paradise island—a trip I made hundreds of times. Each time I was struck by the vivid blue of the sky, the purity of the water, and the beauty of the marine depths. As often as not, dolphins would come to greet us, swimming at our side and then leaving again as their fancy took them.
We often used to play a game of seeing who could spot them first: as soon as somebody shouted i
, there they were. Pelicans would often follow us from the Cuban coast as far as Cayo Piedra, and I loved watching their heavy, rather clumsy flight. For other members of this Cuban military elite, that crossing of three-quarters of an hour constituted a welcome break; protecting someone as demanding as Fidel required constant vigilance and afforded no opportunity for letup.
(the chief ), as we privately called him, generally stayed in the plush atmosphere of the main sitting room, usually in his large black CEO chair, in which no other human being had ever sat. A glass of his favorite drink of whisky on the rocks in one hand, he would immerse himself in the summarized reports from the intelligence services, go through the review of the international press prepared by his cabinet, or scour the telegrams from Agence France-Presse, Associated Press, and Reuters.
would also take the opportunity to discuss current affairs with José Naranjo, the faithful aide-de-camp known as Pepín, who shared almost every moment of his boss’s professional life until his death from cancer in 1995.
Dalia was also there, of course. Mother of five of Fidel’s children, Dalia Soto del Valle was the woman who had secretly shared his life since 1961—although Cubans did not learn of her existence until the 2000s. Finally there was Professor Eugenio Selman, Fidel’s personal doctor until 2010, whose professional competence and political conversation were highly valued by
. The primary function of this elegant, considerate, and universally respected man was obviously to look after the chief ’s health—but Fidel’s personal doctor also ministered to the whole of his entourage.
Guests—company directors or heads of state—rarely came on board. On the few occasions when that occurred,
would invite his guest to accompany him onto the upper deck from where the panorama of the Cuban coast, particularly the famous Bay of Pigs from which we had just set sail, could be admired. As
moved off, Fidel—an incomparable raconteur—would regale his guest with an account of the tragic landing on that now celebrated bay. We would watch him from the rear deck, launching into great explanations and pointing to different parts of that swampy, mosquito-infested area, a teacher dispensing an open-air history lesson to his erstwhile student.
He was replaced by Carlos Lage, who ultimately became vice president of the Council of Ministers and executive secretary of the Council of State, before being dismissed in 2009.
“You see down there at the bottom of the bay—that’s Playa Larga! And there, at the eastern entrance to the bay is Playa Girón! It was there that at exactly 1:15 a.m. on April 17, 1961, the contingent of fourteen hundred CIA-trained Cuban exiles landed in an attempted invasion aimed at overthrowing the nation. But nobody here surrenders! The people resisted heroically, and after three days the invaders had to withdraw to Playa Girón and hand over their weapons.”
Planned by Dwight Eisenhower and launched at the beginning of John F. Kennedy’s presidency, the operation was a complete fiasco: 1,400 members of the expeditionary unit were taken prisoner and 118 killed. On Castro’s side there were 176 deaths and several hundred injured. It was a total humiliation for Washington. For the first time in history, “American imperialism” suffered a crushing military defeat, and Fidel Castro established himself on the international stage as the undisputed leader of the developing world. Now openly allied with the USSR, he could deal with the great powers on an equal footing.