Being Fidel Jr.

Fidel Castro Jr. with Paris Hilton in 2015 (Reuters photo: Alexandre Meneghini)
The life and death of Castro’s son

Last week, news came from Cuba that Fidel Castro Jr. had killed himself. He had been battling depression for a long time and finally succumbed.

There was skepticism about this news because it was delivered by Cuba’s state media, which are of course untrustworthy. Was Castro Jr. perhaps killed in some succession struggle?

This is unlikely. Castro Jr. had some official jobs, but was never close to power. Fidel Castro did not allow his children near power. He kept them at arm’s length, showing little interest in them. His brother Raúl is very different. He is, indeed, a family man — the type to preside over Sunday dinners, for example. His son Alejandro is a big in the Cuban interior ministry, i.e., the secret police. He himself is a potential ruler.

But “Fidelito,” as he was known — “Little Fidel” — was something else.

Fidel Castro had ten kids, or fifteen, or more. No one really knows. It’s possible that Castro himself didn’t precisely know.

In 1993, Ann Louise Bardach interviewed Castro for Vanity Fair. She asked him how many children he had, and, at first, he declined to answer. Then he said, “Almost a tribe” — which must be one of the few charming or true things he ever said.

State media were forbidden to mention his family, ever. Even the CIA was unclear about the scope and particulars of Castro’s family.

Was he married? Many people thought so and said so. They said he was married to Dalia Soto del Valle, with whom he had five sons. But in an interview with Oliver Stone in 2003, Castro denied that he was married.

Those five sons, by the way, all have names that begin with A. They are Alexis, Alex, Alejandro, Antonio, and Ángel. (Raúl Castro has an Alejandro of his own, as you know.) How to account for all those A’s? For that matter, how to account for all those Alexanders, or variations thereon?

“Alejandro” (the Spanish form of “Alexander”) was Castro’s middle name. Also, he idolized Alexander the Great. Moreover, “Alejandro” was Castro’s nom de guerre during the revolution.

“Ángel” was the name of Castro’s father. About “Antonio,” I can’t tell you.

I can tell you something coarse, but maybe amusing: Some Cuban anti-Communists of my acquaintance refer to Castro’s five boys with Dalia Soto del Valle as “the five A-holes.”

Castro was definitely married once — to Mirta Díaz-Balart, the sister of his friend Rafael. They got married in 1948, when Castro was 22.

The Díaz-Balarts were a prominent political family in Cuba. Later, they would achieve prominence in the United States. Two of Rafael’s sons would serve in Congress. They were, and are, strong democrats, anti-Communists, and advocates of human rights. Castro liked to have some fun with visiting congressmen: “Say hello to my nephews, would you?”

A year into their marriage, Castro and Mirta had a son, Fidelito. Castro was not exactly the faithful type, to anyone. He had other women, who had other children (of his). Castro and Mirta divorced in 1955.

I should remark that this was four years before Castro seized power — which occurred on January 1, 1959.

Mirta had custody of Fidelito. And soon she was engaged to be married again. Her husband-to-be was Emilio Núñez Blanco, who, like Mirta, belonged to a prominent political family. His father, for example, was the Cuban ambassador to the United Nations. Castro hated the Núñez family, as a revolutionary would. And the thought of Fidelito in these arms burned him.

In the summer of 1956, Castro was exiled in Mexico, conducting the revolution from abroad. Mirta and Emilio were about to be married. And Castro made a request of his ex-wife: Could he have Fidelito for two weeks? Mirta agreed, but had a condition: Castro would have to give his word of honor that he would return Fidelito after two weeks. He gave it. He promised he would send Fidelito back via the boy’s aunt Lidia (Castro’s sister).

Off Fidelito went to Mexico. And immediately, Castro began a new life for him. He placed Fidelito with a married couple who were supporters of the revolution: They would serve as foster parents. The boy even got a new name, though not the name of either of his foster parents, curiously. He was called “Juan Ramírez.”

Essentially, Castro kidnapped his son. He announced that he would not return him to his mother, surrounded as she was by enemies of the revolution. Almost three months later, Mirta and those enemies, with the help of the Mexican authorities, “rekidnapped” him. Fidelito was back home.

And where was home? Mirta and her husband lived in both Havana and New York. They had Fidelito go to school in New York. A report in the Chicago Daily News later said that Mirta had feared for Fidelito’s life in Cuba. He was the son of the guerrilla leader, after all. And there were rumors that the son was a target of assassination by anti-revolutionary forces.

Fidelito was in the United States on that historic New Year’s Day in 1959. Mirta had him fly home to join his father — who would have custody of Fidelito forever. Why did she do this? She was probably unaware of what was coming. She also thought that Castro had certain rights over their son.

Furthermore, we might ask a psychological question: Did Mirta ever truly break with Castro? Did she ever fall out of love with him? Did she hang on to him, at some level, through all his many offenses, personal, national, and international? Some people think she did. It was not unknown for women Castro had discarded or otherwise abused to remain in love with him.

In any case, Castro had Fidelito at his side during those first heady days after the revolution’s triumph. The boy was nine. He and his father paraded atop a Sherman tank.

Short months later — in May — Fidelito was in a terrible car accident. This necessitated an operation to remove his spleen. He was close to death, but was saved.

As the dictator’s only child — only publicly known child — Fidelito was a celebrity in Cuba. He evidently did not enjoy this status. An American news report said that his face would turn red when he was approached by autograph-seekers. At the Rex Cinema in downtown Havana, he would use a side door to avoid them.

Eventually, Castro placed his son out of view altogether. It is not exactly clear why he did this. Sensitivity to the boy’s feelings? Sensitivity was never outstanding among Castro’s qualities, as a father or ruler.

When it came to education, Castro had very clear ideas about Fidelito: He would study nuclear physics, and he would go to the Soviet Union to do it. The USSR was Castro’s great patron. Fidelito went to Lomonosov University in Moscow. He had an assumed name (another one). Some say it was José Raúl Fernández, some say it was Raúl Martínez. Maybe it was both, at different times. At any rate, he studied at Lomonosov, then went to work at the I. V. Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Energy, also in Moscow. He married a Russian woman, with whom he would have several children.

In 1980, when Fidelito was about 30, Castro gave him a job — a substantial job, and one for which he should have been well equipped: executive secretary of nuclear affairs at Cuba’s Atomic Energy Commission. Fidelito had been out of the public eye for years, and now he was back in it. He looked much like the old man, with a bushy beard and all. He was huskier than his father, but otherwise a startling likeness.

Some in Cuba say that Fidelito always lived in awe of his father, and of course in the shadow of his father, and consciously imitated him — to the extent that was possible.

He worked at the Atomic Energy Commission until 1992. Then, his father fired him. There was some break, some rift. Why? This is another mystery, often addressed, never to complete satisfaction. Castro accused his son of mismanagement and incompetence. It may have been true. Some analysts believe that Fidelito traded on his father’s name too freely. That may have been true, too.

After his fall from grace, Fidelito spent some years in the wilderness. Then, in 2000, his father rehabilitated him (we might say): giving him a position at the Cuban Academy of Sciences. Thereafter, Castro Jr. lived in apparent comfort, and traveled around the world as a scientific adviser to the regime.

In 2013, he gave an interview to RT, the Kremlin’s television network. He said that he had never had political ambitions: “All my career has been as a scientist.”

Last week, at 68, he killed himself, having been tormented for a long time with depression. Or so Cuba’s state media said. It sounds true to me. (A few years ago, I wrote a study of the sons and daughters of dictators, called “Children of Monsters.” I have adapted the present piece from that book.) Everybody has choices, or some choices, even when he is born the child of a dictator. Yet Fidelito’s choices must have been sharply limited.

Think of what he experienced, even before reaching the age of ten: the divorce of his parents; the kidnapping; the “rekidnapping”; the revolution; the return to his father and a new life as the dictator’s son; the car accident. If Castro Jr. had written memoirs — honestly — those memoirs would be fascinating to read.


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