The ashes of Ramón Castro, elder brother of Cuba’s revolutionary leaders, have come home to Birán in eastern Cuba where his father was once a large landholder. A family service will be held Thursday for Castro, who died in Havana Tuesday at the age of 91.
Unlike his brothers Raúl and Fidel Castro, he eschewed politics, focusing instead on the land and trying to improve Cuban agriculture. He served as a deputy in Cuba’s National Assembly but most of his jobs, from working as a consultant to the sugar and agriculture ministries to overseeing agricultural research, had their roots in agriculture.
“His death represents a lot more than just the passing of the oldest brother of Fidel and Raúl Castro,” said John Parke Wright IV, a Florida cattleman who first met him at the Havana International Fair in the late 1990s. “Ramón Castro represents individual agricultural excellence.”
His father Angel instilled the lessons of “agriculture discipline” in Ramón and they never left him, said Wright. “And as the eldest son, he was the first one to drive the John Deere tractor at his father’s farm. He was very proud of that.”
When Wright wanted to export cattle to Cuba — permissible under agricultural exceptions to the embargo, it was Ramón Castro who helped him. As a result of that cattle diplomacy, more than 400 head of purebred Florida Holsteins and Jerseys, Braford cattle (a Brahman, Hereford mix) from the Adams Farm near Fort Pierce and 5,000 straws of semen from a champion Brangus bull named Gator were sent to Cuba.
The artificial breeding program that resulted from Gator’s efforts spawned a whole new breed of cattle in Cuba that are a Zebu/Brangus cross, said Wright. “Ramón was just a tremendous help in getting these projects done.”
Gary Maybarduk, who was the political and economic affairs counselor at the U.S. Interests Section from 1997 to 1999, recalls meeting Ramón at least twice during that era.
Wright said that the elder Castro didn’t speak to him about politics, but Maybarduk recalls that Ramón Castro seemed to share “his mother’s objection to the nationalization of the family farm.” Beginning in 1959, Cuba began enacting agrarian reform that set a limit on holdings and expropriated the remainder. Among the lands snared was the 21,650-acre Castro farm, which at the time was being managed by Ramón. The Institute of Agrarian Reform left him with just 1,000 acres.
During one reception at the Interests Section, which became the U.S. Embassy again after diplomatic relations between the two countries were restored last summer, Maybarduk said Ramón told a small group: “It was my crazy brother Raúl who converted Fidel to communism.” As early as 1953, Raúl Castro had joined the Communist Youth.
After Ramón’s remarks at the reception, Maybarduk, who now lives in Virginia, said “to my knowledge, Ramón never attended another USINT reception.”
“He was a genuinely friendly person, and nice people are nice people regardless of politics,” said Wright.
Castro had dropped from public view during the last few years, but Wright recalled him as “rarin’ to go” well into his 80s.
Wright, who last saw the elder Castro about two years ago when his doctor had told him he had to cut out cigars, said he was a farmer to the end. Although he lived on the outskirts of Havana, a small farm stretched out behind the house with turkeys, sheep, a little orange grove and other fruit trees.