Growing Up Castro

Cuban President Fiel Castro delivers an annual Revolution Day speech,  marking the 51st anniversary of the failed July 26, 19
Cuban President Fiel Castro delivers an annual Revolution Day speech, marking the 51st anniversary of the failed July 26, 1953, attack on a military barracks that launched the Cuban revolution, Monday July 26, 2004, in Santa Clara, East of Cuba. (AP photo/Jose Goitia)

3. What Makes A Life Significant?

Over time Castro's horizons and political activity widened. In late 1947, at age 21, Castro became involved in the so-called Cayo Confites expedition, a Cuban government-aided campaign to oust the Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo, causing consternation in Birán. His response to his mother's plea to pull out of the aborted mission speaks to his intensifying (and broadening) political commitments. "I can't pull out, Mama, you must understand," he wrote. "To overthrow Trujillo is a democratic mission, and if the price is life, then all of us here are ready to pay it." Early the next year, Castro traveled to Bogotá, Columbia, to attend an international student conference designed to express solidarity with populist governments in Argentina (Juan Peron) and Columbia (Jorge Eliécer Gaitán). Gaitán was assassinated while Castro was there, an event that sparked the so-called Bogotazo, a short-lived civil war, which Castro enthusiastically joined and from which he narrowly escaped thanks to the aid of the Cuban ambassador. It was about this time that U.S. intelligence officials first became aware of Castro, "one of the young 'student leaders' in Cuba, who manages to get himself involved in many things that do not concern him."

Returning to Havana from Bogotá in spring 1948, Castro found himself embroiled in another murder of the leader of a rival student organization. Once again, he was able to formally clear himself of charges, but he emerged from the episode a marked man. The aborted Cayo Confites expedition, the Bogotazo, another unsolved murder at the university--Castro's name was becoming notorious, and his freedom, if not his life, was clearly in jeopardy. At the advice of family and friends, he withdrew from university politics to the quiet of Birán, an act of expediency that his family mistook for a change of heart.

Juanita Castro recalls her parents' delight at her brother's return home. "It's time for you to think about the future," his father advised. "Your mother and I have devoted ourselves entirely to the idea of launching you children on a career. Drop all this political nonsense and finish your coursework. Where do you want to study besides Cuba? Choose a university in the United States." Castro pushed back: "No, Papa, it costs too much to study there. Stop worrying about me and you'll see that I choose a career." Really, Ángel insisted, money wasn't an issue. "You always wanted to go to Harvard, Fidel, and I think this is what you should do. This old man hasn't lived in vain nor forgotten what he promised: to launch you on an enterprising law career. "

Lina Castro had her own ideas. For over a year now, Castro had been enamored of a young woman by the name of Mirta Diaz-Ballart, the sister of one of his university friends. "To me it doesn't matter where you complete your studies," Lina told her son, "only that you and Mirta are in love. It's time to start a family. Why not marry and go to the United States?"

Marry the couple did, on October 11, 1948, in what was by all accounts a joyous celebration. They were showered in gifts, the most striking--a pair of antique alabaster lamps--courtesy of past and future dictator Fulgencio Batista, a close friend of Mirta's family. Next came the honeymoon and a short stay on Collins Avenue in trendy Miami Beach, where Castro bought his first car, a blue Lincoln Continental, for $2,000, and in which he and Mirta took off for New York City. Once in New York, the newlyweds rented an apartment on Manhattan's Upper West Side while Castro weighed the prospect of graduate study at Columbia. To the surprise of his family, he never enrolled, and the couple returned to Havana in late December 1948. In September 1949, Mirta gave birth to a son, Fidelito, a blessing sweetened the following June when Castro received his law degree and was admitted to the bar. Once again with Castro's parents' support, the young family returned to Havana, where Castro opened a law office. Truly, the young couple seemed to have it all: a happy marriage, a beautiful boy, doting families, a comfortable home, a budding legal career. There was even talk of a move to Paris.

There are countless descriptions of the person Castro became after the triumph of the Revolution, positive and negative (rarely neutral). One characteristic stands out among all the others: the man was not to be domesticated. Castro famously worked into the wee hours, dispensing with sleep for days at a time, then disappearing for long naps; he could go for days without a thought to food, then gorge himself to the disgust of many; he worked tirelessly and kept an inhuman schedule, but vanished for sport or recreation without a moment's notice. In sum, Castro lived for work not family. "Fidel is almost never home," Mirta wrote her in-laws from Havana, "and in truth I find myself abandoned; we almost never talk and some days I spend entirely alone."

Another younger sister, Enma, remembers Mirta's dreams of domestic bliss ending cruelly. First came news that Castro never intended to move the family to Paris, as he had promised. When Mirta protested, Castro exploded ("Fuck, Mirta, stop insisting that we go to Paris!"), smashing alabaster lamps given the newlyweds by Batista, as Mirta retreated in tears. Next came evidence in the form of two boys born to two different mothers that her new husband was something less than faithful, hardly unusual in 1950s Cuba, but inconsistent with the fairytale their life had supposedly become.

Once back in Havana, Castro gave more attention to politics than to the law, ultimately running for a seat in congress as a representative of the Cuban People's Party (Partido Ortodoxo) in the 1952 presidential election. Founded in 1947 by the firebrand senator Eduardo Chíbas, the Cuban People's Party appealed to him, Castro told his father, because of its motto "virtue before money," which signaled its commitment to stamping out political corruption. The election never came off. That March Fulgencio Batista, former dictator and president and fast friend of the Diaz-Balarts, launched his second military coup, suspending an election he was sure to lose and setting aside the 1940 Constitution. Rumor had it that Batista, living in Tampa, Florida, was running short on cash and wanted to refill his coffers.