Fidel Castro’s eldest son has joined a long list of public figures who have taken their own lives in a country with one of the highest rates of suicide.
In a rare exercise of transparency, the Cuban official press on Thursday reported that Fidel Castro Díaz-Balart, 68, committed suicide after suffering from deep depression for months. According to various versions, which el Nuevo Herald has not been able to confirm, his death occurred under circumstances that would be difficult to hide.
Rumors ranged from Castro Díaz-Balart shooting himself to jumping off the building in the Kohly neighborhood where he was receiving treatment.
Neighbors said there was a flurry of security activity around the Clinica de Seguridad Personal, a pink and buff colored military hospital in the Kohly neighborhood, on Thursday and Friday morning. But by Friday evening the neighborhood, where many military families live, was quiet. There is always tight security in Kohly with police posted on many corners.
One neighbor said Castro Díaz-Balart locked himself in a fourth-floor room at the clinic and wouldn’t let doctors enter, before throwing himself through a window and landing in front of the building not far from the Cuban flag, which remained at full staff Friday.
Another neighbor said that about two months ago, he saw Castro Díaz-Balart waiting at a bus stop in the neighborhood, and another saw him walking around Kohly.
If any of the death versions are true, it would help explain why the official press reacted so quickly to announce the suicide and share details about his depression with the population.
Reached by phone in Havana, Fidel Antonio Castro Smirnov — the son of Castro Díaz-Balart with first wife Olga Smirnova — said he would not make statements to the press and asked for “respect for the privacy of the family at this time.”
In Miami, Juanita Castro, sister of the current ruler Raúl Castro and the late Fidel Castro, said she did not know the details of her nephew’s death. Mirta Díaz-Balart, Castro Díaz-Balart’s mother and Fidel Castro’s first wife, lives in Spain but travels to the island frequently and was “on her way to Cuba and probably already there,” Juanita Castro said Friday. She said she lamented the death of her nephew but would not be attending the funeral. According to the official announcement and a statement by the Cuban Foreign Ministry, the funeral will be strictly family, not a state ceremony.
On the island, news of the suicide did not raise eyebrows.
Cuba has one of the highest rates of suicide in Latin America with 17 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants, according to the World Health Organization. According to Cuba’s most recent statistics, in 2015 there were 2,535 deaths “due to self-inflicted injuries,” the eighth cause of death that year, above diabetes and cirrhosis of the liver.
“The phenomenon of suicide is part of Cuba’s culture and its political culture,” said Lou Pérez Jr., a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and author of the book “To Die in Cuba. Suicide and Society.”
Several public figures have committed suicide in the past several decades on the island. In 1951, Cuban radio listeners were shocked when the influential politician Eduardo Chibás fired a gun while on the air. Chibás died days later from the self-inflicted wounds to his leg. Osvaldo Dorticós, the second president after Fidel Castro rose to power in 1959, also shot himself in 1983 after suffering from depression. Three years earlier, in 1980, Haydeé Santamaría, a central figure of the arts in the early years of the revolution, reportedly used a shotgun to kill herself.
“The phenomenon of the suicide of public figures is an illustration of what happens among the population in general. Cubans have that history of suicide, which goes as far back as the indigenous population and slavery,” Pérez said. In Cuban culture, the historian added, there is “the phenomenon of patriotic suicide,” exemplified in phrases within the national anthem like “dying for the motherland is living” and later in the socialist slogan “motherland or death.”
Suicide became a taboo subject during the first decades of the revolution led by Fidel Castro, because it did not fit into the socialism narrative of being content. And although the official press reported the deaths of Dorticós and Santamaría, the episodes were shrouded in mystery and are barely mentioned in history books on the island.
Other Cuba observers have pointed to the symbolism of the suicide of Fidel Castro’s firstborn, a little more than a year after the ruler’s own death.
“The suicide of Fidel Castro Díaz-Balart is a metaphor for a revolution that does not swallow its children, but somehow invites them to take their own lives,” wrote Cuban writer and journalist Carlos Alberto Montaner on Twitter. “It happened to Osvaldo Dorticós, former president, and Nilsa Espín, sister-in-law of Raúl Castro.”
The news of Castro Díaz-Balart’s death has also generated speculation about an alleged power struggle between the families of Raúl and Fidel Castro.
“There has been some speculation of the anger and disappointment of Fidel’s family after General Raúl Castro became president and his children took the spotlight and hardly anything else was heard of Fidel’s offspring,” said Frank Calzon, director of the Washington-based Center for a Free Cuba.
“There is no way of knowing if the tense relations between the Castros in Cuba, or the recent death of Fidel, or the dramatic economic and social crisis on the island had anything to do with Castro Díaz-Balart’s death,” Calzon added.
“I met Fidelito, the eldest son of Fidel a few times. He was well-liked, exceptionally smart and fluent in a handful of languages,” Ann Louise Bardach, who interviewed Fidel Castro on several occasions, wrote in an email. “A Russian-trained physicist, he shared his father’s intellectual curiosity and passion for the sciences. What makes this especially tragic is that he was the only son of Mirta Díaz-Balart, 90.” Díaz-Balart has two other daughters in Spain.
Castro Díaz-Balart, known as “Fidelito” on the island, had a difficult childhood in the midst of a fierce battle for his custody, Bardach wrote years ago in an article for The Washington Post.
In 1954, while Fidel Castro was in prison for assaulting the Moncada barracks, he learned that his wife wanted a divorce and that she had taken Fidelito with her to the United States. His wife’s family was connected to the same government that Castro wanted to overthrow. After losing custody of his son, Castro wrote to one of his sisters that, “One day I’ll be out of here and I’ll get my son and my honor back — even if the earth should be destroyed in the process.”
After leaving prison and going into exile in Mexico, Castro begged Díaz-Balart to send the boy to Mexico before he embarked on the expedition that would ultimately launch the revolution in Cuba. He gave his word as a “gentleman” that he would return the boy after two weeks. He did not. His mother then used her family’s influence to hire three men to kidnap Fidelito as he was walking in a park with two of Castro’s sisters, Bardach reported. Juanita Castro confirmed the details of the incident to el Nuevo Herald.
The boy ultimately returned to New York with his mother. After he seized control in 1959, Castro once again appealed to her with a request to send the child to Havana. Fidelito returned to the island with his father.
As a teenager, Fidelito’s behavior abroad once embarrassed Castro, as reported by the Miami Herald in 1967. Castro sent his son on a tour of several socialist countries. Fidelito escaped from a hospital where he received treatment for pneumonia and managed to get on a plane back to Havana. When he returned, Castro punished him by not letting him leave a mansion in a Havana suburb near the former Country Club.
This would not be the only episode in which Castro Díaz-Balart was publicly humiliated by his father. In 1992, he was fired by Castro for “inefficiency” as the head of the construction of a nuclear power plant in Cienfuegos.
After several years of ostracism, Díaz-Balart returned to public life but with a low profile. Most recently, he was seen posing in a selfie with Paris Hilton in Havana.
“In Castro Díaz-Balart, all the symptoms of the heir’s orphanhood must have come together. In a very short time, his environment changed dramatically,” said Cuban writer and historian Rafael Rojas. “The government of his uncle altered not a few rules of the game within the Cuban political class and put the elites in circulation. The suicide of Castro Díaz-Balart serves as another evidence of that metamorphosis of Cuban socialism.”
Miami Herald staffer Mimi Whitefield contributed to this report from Havana.
Follow Nora Gámez Torres on Twitter: @ngameztorres