MIAMI — Fidel Castro once claimed that he lived a life of exemplary revolutionary frugality on a salary of merely $36 per month.
“Lies,” said Juan Reinaldo Sanchez, 65, who served as a bodyguard for the former Cuban leader for 17 years and has published a book of memoirs portraying Castro as a sort of feudal lord who ran the island as a personal fiefdom.
Castro personally controlled about 20 luxury homes, a Caribbean island getaway with a pool in which dolphins swam, the 88-foot yacht Aquarama II and several fishing vessels whose catch was sold for dollars deposited in his accounts, according to Sanchez.
“He always claims he lives frugally. Lies. He lives in a luxury that most Cubans can’t even imagine,” Sanchez told el Nuevo Herald in his first interview after the book, “The Secret Life of Fidel Castro,” was published Wednesday in France.
Sanchez said he lost Castro’s trust after his brother escaped from Cuba in 1994. Forced out of the personal security details, he refused transfers and asked for retirement but was instead sent to prison for two years for insubordination. He spent the first three months in a scorching hot and mosquito-riddled isolation cell just 9-by-9 feet and dropped from 187 to 114 pounds.
After escaping aboard a go-fast boat to Mexico in 2008, he crossed the U.S. border and settled in Miami. A regular guest on South Florida’s Spanish-language television programs, Sanchez has previously alleged Castro approved a drug-smuggling operation that led to the execution of Cuban army Gen. Arnaldo Ochoa in 1989, and commented on other Cuban secrets. Other defectors have confirmed Sanchez, a graduate of the Interior Ministry’s Higher School for Counter Intelligence Eliseo Reyes Rodriguez, spent many years on Castro’s Praetorian Guard — the last five in his innermost ring of bodyguards.
Sanchez has an inch-thick stack of photos of himself, in and out of the uniform of an Interior Ministry lieutenant colonel, and certificates of appreciation signed by Castro. His anecdotes cannot be independently confirmed because of their very nature, however.
His 325-page book says Castro, now 87, controlled several numbered bank accounts abroad as well as the finances of several state enterprises — including a small gold mine in the Isle of Youth — that reported to him as president of the ruling Council of State. When Castro received a Cohiba cigar box full of Angolan diamonds, he told an aide to sell the gems on the international market “and you know what to do,” Sanchez said.
Two large elephant tusks that once stood in his home also came from Angola. None of the bank accounts or enterprises were in Castro’s name, but they didn’t have to be, the bodyguard said. “He didn’t have to report to anyone. He had sole control” over economic activity he estimated at “hundreds of millions of dollars” over 10 years.
But after Forbes magazine included the Cuban ruler in its 2006 list of 10 richest “Kings, Queens and Dictators,” he declared that his salary was about 900 pesos per month, or $36. The former bodyguard said part of the book focuses on Castro’s luxurious life because so little is known about it even within the communist-ruled nation. The leader has said his personal life is a “state secret” because of the multiple attempts to assassinate him.
“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,” says the book, written with Axel Gylden, a senior journalist at L’Express magazine in France. “This is the first time someone from Castro’s intimate circle, someone who was part of the system and a firsthand witness to these events, has spoken,” Gylden said.
Visitors to Castro’s home west of Havana, known as Punto Cero, have described it as relatively modest, perhaps on the level of an upper middle class home in the United States yet far better than what most Cubans can even imagine. But Sanchez said that away from the public eye, Castro enjoyed a life of luxury, spending a month each year in the paradisiacal Cayo Piedra south of the Bay of Pigs and often spending weekends on a duck hunting preserve in Pinar del Rio called La Deseada.
Cayo Piedra, which includes a dolphin and turtle lagoon, was serviced from a Castro-controlled marina with several hundred workers who manned three large yachts, including the Aquarama II, Sanchez said. Finished with precious woods from Angola, it was powered by four torpedo boat motors sent by the Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev.
Castro also controlled two other large yachts, including one equipped as a floating hospital, and two commercial fishing vessels that supplied Cayo Piedra and sold the surplus in Havana for dollars that went into his bank accounts, the bodyguard recalled.
Only special friends were allowed on the island, according to Sanchez, such as the late Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez, CNN owner Ted Turner and Erich Honecker, then head of the communist-run East Germany.
Castro also controlled a complex of Havana buildings and grounds, including a basketball court, a fully equipped medical center and rooftop bowling alley, first established for him by one of his lovers and closest aides, the late Celia Sanchez.
Castro later married the mother of five of his dozen or so children, Dalia Soto del Valle, but had affairs still later with a flight attendant, a translator and another woman, he said. Soto del Valle had her own affair with a chauffeur, but Castro forgave both his wife and the chauffeur.
Everything the Cuban leader received, including clothes, food and even official documents, was first checked for germs and radiation, Sanchez said. And each morning an aide delivered to him a bundle of reports on Cuban intelligence activities around the world plus international news reports.
Castro always moved about with at least 10 bodyguards, including two with matching blood types who could give him a direct transfusion in case of an emergency because he did not trust stored blood, according to the bodyguard.
The Cuban ruler had serious health crises in 1983 and 1992 and underwent radiation treatment for what doctors described as the result of anal bleeding due to intestinal cancer, Sanchez said. His refusal to have surgery contributed to another intestinal crisis in 2006, when he finally surrendered power.
“In 1992 I saw him (looking) dead, on a stretcher. The nurses were crying and everything,” Sanchez said. But Castro recovered and went to rule for another 14 years.