Raúl Castro succeeded his brother Fidel as President six years before I came to Cuba in March of 2015. But I came looking for Fidel, the now octogenarian, who from ninety miles away had managed to spit in America's eye for over half a century.
It is no small thing to lead a successful revolution, as Fidel did in 1959. And it is no doubt an accomplishment to hold onto power for fifty years. But to do so on a small island in the shadow of a rich and powerful country that wants you dead is an astonishing feat.
The U.S. officially admits to eight assassination attempts. Fabian Escalante, a retired chief of Cuban counterintelligence, claims there have been 638. No doubt the truth lies somewhere inbetween, but even eight is quite a record of success for Fidel and of failure for the world's greatest superpower.
I came expecting to see Fidel's face everywhere, à la Mao. But there was no Plaza de Fidel, no statutes in his image. When I saw the neon silhouettes in the distance in Revolution Square on my first night in Havana, I assumed they were of Fidel and Che Guevara.
I immediately recognized that handsome devil Che, but upon closer inspection, the other one didn't look at all like Fidel. I thought it might be Karl Marx, given the flowing beard and accompanying imprimatur, "Vas bien, Fidel." You are doing well. I later learned that it was in fact Camilo Cienfuegos, another revolutionary leader and compatriot of Fidel.
Why was Fidel granted only this small footnote in Havana's main square, where for decades he had delivered his four-hour speeches to vast crowds listening in respectful silence?
I expected to find the Cuban people brimming with homespun tales showing how special Fidel was from the start — a brave boy, a brilliant student, a young man of great integrity. Perhaps he read ceaselessly by candlelight, or chopped down a palm tree and refused to lie about it when caught. I imagined hearing stories about his children, one more brilliant than the next, the natural leaders who would establish a great dynasty of Castros in Cuba.
But there was none of this. While most Cubans I met were happy to share stories of Fidel's heroic role in the 1959 revolution, there was very little on offer about his background or personal life. Nor did there seem to be a photographic record of any sort. In an obscure government office in Trinidad de Cuba, 200 miles from Havana, I found a few framed photos of his brother and now President Raúl with Hugo Chávez of Venezuela. But I found none of Fidel, in Trinidad or anywhere else.
On one of my last days in Cuba, I did come across one image of Fidel: an arresting monochromatic portrait in blue that appeared to be decades old. It was prominently displayed in the main conference room of the Federation of Cuban Women, an organization established in 1960 by Vilma Espín, Raúl's wife until her death in 2007. Vilma was a force in her own right, a feminist who studied chemical engineering at MIT and fought side by side with the Castro brothers during the revolution. I thought that perhaps she told her brother-in-law that she was hanging a portrait of him in her offices whether he liked it or not. Fidel had made her husband head of the military in his new regime, giving her leverage that others lacked.
I had even less luck engaging the Cubans in conversation about Fidel. It didn't matter who I asked — bureaucrats, professors, cab drivers, bartenders — the story was always the same: Fidel (never "Castro") married in 1948, had a son "Fidelito" in 1949, and divorced soon after. Nada más. I knew a few random factoids about Fidel — that he had studied law in Havana, that he came to New York on his honeymoon in the 1940s — but when I mentioned them, I was met with only stares. When I asked where Fidel lived, everyone claimed (or feigned) ignorance.
I knew next to nothing about Fidel. Could it be that after fifty years the Cubans knew even less? Maybe my manner was off-putting, or my gringa Spanish was getting in the way. I decided to try a narrower focus: I would only ask about Fidel's children.
Before leaving home, I had read a first-hand account of contemporary Cuba by Marc Frank, an American journalist who lived in Havana off and on for years. According to Frank and many others, it is well-known in Cuba that Fidel has five sons with his second wife, all of whom still live on the island. This, I thought, might be a way in — a source of pride, something the family-oriented Cubans might be willing to acknowledge and discuss.
Still, no matter how I tried to gain their trust, chit-chatting and answering questions about my life in the U.S., my eventual queries about Fidel's offspring led only to uncomfortable shifting in seats and changing of subjects. Did I have children? How old was my son? Was he married? The stone wall was impenetrable. To a one, the Cubans reported that Fidel had one only son, the now 66-year-old Fidelito.
My last hope was Marta, our young Cuban minder. She had a great sense of humor, and had whispered to me that the time of famine in the 1990s was referred to as the "Special Period" because "the word crisis is taboo." But in the matter of Fidel's personal life, she too became mute. When I persisted, she sighed and said that Fidel's personal life "is something mysterious." Was this fear, or just an ingrained habit from the bad old days? Even though Marta and I cried in each other's arms on our last night in Havana, I would never learn her answer to this, or any other question I asked about Fidel.
When I returned to the U.S., I discovered that the state media are forbidden to write about Fidel's personal life, and that its discussion among the people has been strictly taboo for as long as anyone can remember.
Obviously, there is no cult of personality around Fidel in Cuba. If anything, Che has been lionized — his face is everywhere. (But don't expect to buy that iconic t-shirt, or, for that matter, any of the standard mass-produced souvenir trinkets in Cuba — they do not exist.)
Here is Fidel's generally accepted biography, knowable to anyone outside Cuba with an internet connection or a library card: Fidel's father, Angel Castro, was an immigrant from Galicia, Spain who prospered as a sugarcane farmer. Fidel was born Fidel Alejandro Ruz, one of Angel's seven illegitimate children with his household servant, Lina Ruz.
Fidel also had five half-siblings, Angel's legitimate children with his wife Maria Luisa Largota, and at least one other half-sibling by another woman who worked on the farm. When Fidel was fifteen, Angel divorced his first wife and married Fidel's mother, but Fidel was not "formally recognized" (made legitimate) by his father until he was seventeen. At that point Fidel took the name Castro.
Fidel's second and current wife is Dalia Soto del Valle. Following in his father's footsteps, he married her in 1980 after she bore him five sons during the 1960s and ‘70s. Fidel is also known to have several illegitimate children. One of these children--a woman named Alina Devuelta--escaped to Spain in 1993, disguised as a Spanish tourist.
Dictators the world over have a penchant for glossy photo spreads, statues of their idealized selves, and lavish public birthday celebrations. Not Fidel. Perhaps the taboo around Fidel’s family life has it roots in the shame he felt living alongside his father's legitimate family during his childhood and adolescence. Perhaps the secrecy regarding his whereabouts is part of the elaborate security operation developed over decades to protect him from the constant CIA spying and assassination attempts. And maybe, just maybe, he was once an idealistic young socialist who was more interested in creating a viable economic system than a cult of personality.
Photos by author.
Susan Wieler is an economist with a longstanding interest in things that cannot be quantified. She lives in Hoboken, New Jersey with her husband, Stephen.