Responsible for protecting the Líder Máximo for two decades, Juan Reinaldo Sánchez was party to his secret life: from the ghost town in which guerrillas from several continents were trained; to Castro’s immense personal fortune, including a huge property portfolio, a secret paradise island, and seizure of public money; as well as his relationship with his family and his nine children from five different partners.
Sánchez’s tell-all exposé reveals countless state secrets and the many sides of the Cuban monarch: genius war leader in Nicaragua and Angola, paranoid autocrat at home, master spy, Machiavellian diplomat, and accomplice to drug traffickers. This extraordinary testimony makes us reexamine everything we thought we knew about the Cuban story and Fidel Castro Ruz.
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The Double Life of Fidel Castro
My 17 Years as Personal Bodyguard to El Líder Máximo
By Juan Reinaldo Sánchez, Axel Gyldén
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2014 Juan Reinaldo Sánchez
All rights reserved.
CAYO PIEDRA, THE CASTROS' PARADISE ISLAND
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 Aquarama II—Fidel Castro's yacht—was unfailingly escorted by Pioniera I and Pioniera II, 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 Aquarama II. 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 Aquarama II 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, Aquarama II was an elegant vessel with a ninety-foot white hull, a larger replica of Aquarama I, 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 barbudos. 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, Aquarama II 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, Aquarama II, 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 Aquarama II 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 ¡Aquí están!, 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.
El Jefe (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.
El Jefe 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 El Comandante. 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, El Comandante 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 Aquarama II 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.
"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.
Fidel was without question a participant in History with a capital H, and his captive guest, standing on the top deck in the scorching heat, would be hanging on to his every word, enthralled. It was almost as though he, too, were now experiencing history firsthand; he would doubtless treasure for the rest of his life the memory of those few hours of holiday spent on Fidel Castro's yacht. Afterward, the two men would return to the sitting room to join Dalia and Professor Eugenio Selman. That is when the captain of Aquarama II slowed down and the water began to turn emerald green: we were approaching Cayo Piedra.
* * *
Few people know that, in an irony of history, Fidel Castro indirectly owed the discovery of this vacation home to the American invasion launched by JFK.
In the days following the failed Bay of Pigs landing in April 1961, Fidel was exploring the region when he encountered a local fisherman with a wrinkled face whom everyone called El Viejo Finalé. He asked Old Finalé to give him a tour of the area and the fisherman immediately took him on board his fishing boat to Cayo Piedra, a little "jewel" situated ten miles from the coast and known only to the local inhabitants. Fidel instantly fell in love with this place of wild beauty worthy of Robinson Crusoe and decided to have it for his own. The lighthouse keeper was asked to leave the premises and the lighthouse was put out of action, and later taken down.
In Cuba, a cayo—the Spanish word for key—is a flat, sandy island, often thin and narrow. There are thousands of them off the Cuban coast, and many are today visited by tourists and deep-sea diving enthusiasts. Fidel's island stretched over a mile and was slightly curved in shape, oriented north to south. On the eastern side, the rocky coast faced the deep blue sea. To the west, sheltered from the wind, was a fine, sandy coastline and turquoise water. It was a paradise surrounded by glorious ocean, all as virtually untouched as it had been in the time of the great European explorers. Pirates might once have broken their journey, or buried treasure, there.
To be precise, Cayo Piedra consists of not one island but two, a passing cyclone having split it in half. Fidel had, however, rectified this by building a seven-hundred-foot-long bridge between the two parts, calling on the talents of the architect Osmany Cienfuegos, brother of the Castrist revolutionary Camilo Cienfuegos. The southern island was slightly larger than its northern counterpart, and it was here, on the site of the former lighthouse, that the Castro couple had built their house: a cement-built, L-shaped bungalow arranged around a terrace that looked out to the east, onto the open sea. The house was functional and devoid of any showy luxury. Other than Fidel and Dalia's bedroom, it comprised a dormitory bedroom for the children, a kitchen, and a dining-cum-sitting room that looked out onto the sea-facing terrace with its simple wooden furniture; most of the pictures, drawings, and photos on the walls represented fishing or underwater scenes.
From the French windows of this room, to the right, one could see the heliport and about three hundred feet or so further on, the house reserved for us, Fidel's bodyguards. Opposite that was the garrison building that accommodated the rest of the staff—cooks, mechanics, electricians, radio officers, and the dozen armed soldiers permanently stationed on Cayo Piedra. A hangar adjoining the garrison housed a gas storage depot, supplies of drinking water (brought from the mainland by boat), and a miniature generating station.
On the west side of the island, facing the setting sun, the Castros had built a two-hundred-foot-long landing stage. It was situated below the house on the little beach of fine sand that lined the arc-shaped interior coastline of the cayo. To allow Aquarama II and the Pioniera I and II to dock, Fidel and Dalia had also had a half-mile-long channel dug; without this, their flotilla would not have been able to reach the island, surrounded by sand shoals.
The jetty formed the epicenter of social life on Cayo Piedra. A floating pontoon, twenty-three feet long, had been annexed to it, and on the pontoon stood a straw hut with a bar and barbecue grill. This was where the family ate most of their meals—when they were not served on board the yacht. From this floating bar and restaurant, everyone could admire the sea enclosure in which, to the delight of adults and children alike, turtles (some three feet long) were kept. On the other side of the landing stage was a dolphinarium containing two tame dolphins that livened up our daily routines with their pranks and jumps.
The other island, to the north, was practically deserted, housing only the guest quarters. Larger than the master's house, this one had four bedrooms and a large sitting room; it also had an outdoor swimming pool as well as a natural whirlpool carved out of the rocks and fed with seawater via a sort of aqueduct cut into the stone that would fill with water with each new wave. The two houses were connected by a telephone line. We would travel the five hundred yards between them in one of Cayo Piedra's two convertible Volkswagen Beetles; a Soviet-manufactured army vehicle was used for the transport of equipment and goods.
* * *
All his life, Fidel has repeated that he owns no property other than a modest "fisherman's hut" somewhere on the coast. As we have seen, the fisherman's hut was really a luxury vacation home that involved considerable logistics in terms of its surveillance and upkeep. In addition, there were twenty or so other properties, including Punto Cero, his huge property in Havana near the embassy quarter; La Caleta del Rosario, which also houses his private marina in the Bay of Pigs; and La Deseada, a chalet in the middle of a swampy area in Pinar del Río province, where Fidel went fishing and duck hunting every winter. Not to mention all the other properties reserved, in every administrative department of Cuba, for his exclusive use.
Fidel Castro also let it be understood, and sometimes directly stated, that the Revolution left him no possibility for respite or leisure and that he knew nothing about, and even despised, the bourgeois concept of vacation. Nothing could have been further from the truth. From 1977 to 1994, I accompanied him many hundreds of times to the little paradise of Cayo Piedra, where I took part in as many fishing or underwater hunting expeditions.
Excerpted from The Double Life of Fidel Castro by Juan Reinaldo Sánchez, Axel Gyldén. Copyright © 2014 Juan Reinaldo Sánchez. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Table of Contents
1 Cayo Piedra, the Castros' Paradise Island 1
2 Juan Sanchez, Fidel's Bodyguard 19
3 The Castro Dynasty 42
4 The Escort: His Real Family 67
5 Guerrilla Fighters of the World, Unite 93
6 Nicaragua, Fidel's Other Revolution 114
7 Fidel in Moscow, Sanchez in Stockholm 129
8 Raul's Clan 139
9 A Mania for Recording 152
10 The Venezuelan Obsession 170
11 Fidel and the Tin-Pat Tyrants 180
12 A Kings Ransom 193
13 At Death's Door 205
14 Fidel, Angola, and the Art of War 217
15 The Ochoa Affair 228
16 Prison and … Freedom! 245