An appalling indictment of Fidel

Juan Reinaldo Sánchez Crespo was one of the dozen or so defectors from Cuba’s intelligence and security services I interviewed when researching Castro’s Secrets. We met on a number of occasions in Miami after his arrival from Cuba in 2008. He confirmed for me that Fidel had ordered an assassination attempt in London against Florentino Aspillaga, a ranking defector from Cuban intelligence.

Sánchez made it clear, nonetheless, that he was saving his best recollections for his own book. First published in France, The Double Life of Fidel Castro has been worth the wait.

For seventeen years, as Castro’s chief bodyguard and trusted factotum, Sánchez was close to the Cuban throne. He witnessed and recorded sensitive conversations, was ordered to compile obsessively detailed records of Fidel’s activities, coordinated his security and travel, vacationed with him, and accumulated a remarkably textured understanding of the commander in chief.

Sánchez worshipped Fidel, even after being demoralized by the trial and execution of general Arnaldo Ochoa and three others in 1989. Yet in 1994 the faithful bodyguard was imprisoned. He says it was only because Castro no longer trusted him after a brother fled Cuba on a raft to Miami. After two years in prison and ten unsuccessful attempts to do the same, Sánchez boarded a smugglers’ boat and fled.

With the collaboration of Axel Gylden, a prominent French journalist, Sánchez has penned a scathing account of his years in Castro’s entourage. It is filled with surprising details of the Cuban dictator’s hypocritically regal life style. An island retreat, so exorbitantly lavish that only a select few have been invited to experience it, has been kept secret from the Cuban masses. Sánchez reveals that Castro also had at his disposal another twenty homes, a luxurious yacht, an ultra-modern private hospital, and even compatible blood donors recruited to be at the ready whenever he might need a man-to-man transfusion.

Sánchez confirms past Cuban government support for international terrorism and drug trafficking. He tells of how members of the terrorist Spanish Basque ETA “were welcomed with open arms by Fidel.” They taught bomb-making, a skill then shared with Latin American guerrilla groups.

Although it has scarcely been in doubt, Sánchez confirms that Puerto Rican terrorist Victor Manuel Gerena – on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list since 1984 — is in Cuba. After stealing more than $7 million from a Wells Fargo armored car terminal in Connecticut in 1983, he was covertly exfiltrated to Havana in a series of Cuban intelligence operations.

The enormous costs of protecting Castro form a leitmotif that runs through this smoothly written memoir. Sánchez tells of being dispatched with a briefcase full of dollars to purchase homes in Harare, Zimbabwe before a visit by Fidel. The one where Castro briefly stayed was extensively remodeled for him, including the addition of an underground air raid shelter.

Such extraordinary measures were standard through Fidel’s decades in power. I learned from another defector that when Castro visited the United Nations in 1995, and stayed overnight in New York, he brought along with him in the Cuban delegation an elevator repairman. The man stood ready to extricate Fidel should the elevator in the Cuban diplomatic mission malfunction. When it did, I was told that Fidel kicked furiously on the door until the old man brought along for just such an eventuality quickly accomplished the necessary fix.

For me, Sánchez’s most appalling indictment of Fidel concerns the chaotic exodus of more than 125,000 Cubans in 1980 from the port of Mariel. Most who fled were members of Cuban exile families living in the United States. They were allowed to board boats brought by relatives and to make the crossing to South Florida.

But many of the boats were forcibly loaded by Cuban authorities with criminals and mentally ill people plucked from institutions on the island. Few of us who have studied Fidel Castro have doubted that it was he who ordered those dangerous Cubans to be exported to the United States. He has persuaded few with his denials of any role in the incident.

Yet Sánchez adds an appalling new twist to the saga. We learn that prison wards and mental institutions were not hurriedly emptied, as was previously believed. Sánchez reveals that Castro insisted on scouring lists of prisoners so that he could decide who would stay and who would be sent to the United States. He ordered interior minister Jose Abrahantes to bring him prisoner records.

Sánchez was seated in an anteroom just outside of Fidel’s office when the minister arrived. The bodyguard listened as Fidel discussed individual convicts with Abrahantes.

“I was present when they brought him the lists of prisoners,” Sánchez writes, “with the name, the reason for the sentence, and the date of release. Fidel read them, and with the stroke of a pen designated which ones could go and which ones would stay. ‘Yes’ was for murderers and dangerous criminals; ‘no’ was for those who had attacked the revolution.” Dissidents remained incarcerated.

A number of the criminal and psychopathic marielitos put on the boats to Florida went on to commit heinous crimes — including mass murder, rape, and arson. Among the many despicable acts Fidel Castro committed over the years, his decision to facilitate that violence stands in a sordid class by itself.

Brian Latell is the author of “Castro's Secrets: Cuban Intelligence, the CIA, and the Assassination of John F. Kennedy”. A former National Intelligence Officer for Latin America, he is now a senior research associate at the Institute for Cuban & Cuban-American Studies, University of Miami.