Palace intrigue in Havana

Antonio Castro, son of Cuba's Fidel Castro, was once the doctor for the national baseball team.
Antonio Castro, son of Cuba's Fidel Castro, was once the doctor for the national baseball team. AP

A scathing satire depicting Fidel Castro’s favorite son that appeared in a Cuban government newspaper suggests that tensions are festering within the extended Castro clan.

An article attributed to Alexander A. Ricardo was prominently featured in the weekly Havana Tribune on October 24. Although not named, Antonio Castro Soto del Valle was clearly the target.

An orthopedic doctor born in 1969, Antonio lived a pampered but obscure existence until emerging during the last few years as an international playboy. I am told by one of his medical school professors that he was a serious student, but baseball, golf, and a sybaritic lifestyle have evidently eclipsed his interest in medicine.

In the recent article, “The Travels of Gulliver Junior,” Antonio’s privileged status and extravagant travels are ridiculed in the context of Jonathon Swift’s early 18th Century tale of Gulliver in the land of the Lilliputians. Those fictional little people referred to Gulliver as “the man-mountain,” much as a half-century of official Cuban propaganda has depicted Fidel.

“Thanks to his father, Gulliver Jr. travels quite frequently,” the article states. “He appears as a giant enjoying himself on the Mediterranean coast  . . while other sailors can only watch the seagulls fly by.” Antonio, who has been filmed in recent months in New York, at an expensive Turkish seaside resort, and lounging on an enormous yacht, clearly spends lavishly as he travels with a large entourage. He is described in the Gulliver article as “the chosen one.”

Distributed in the streets of Havana, and on-line, the Spanish language Havana Tribune is published by the Cuban government. Ricardo, the author of Antonio’s unmasking, surely worked with at least one editor, and his piece was probably also approved by more senior officials. So at first glance, it seems remarkable that such an attack on Antonio, and implicitly on Fidel himself, could have made it through the regime’s censorship maw.

It is possible that Ricardo penned the piece in righteous wrath, and that those above him looked the other way as it went into print. But I am not aware of any other example during Raúl Castro’s nine years in power of anything similar leaking through levels of official review. I do recall a couple of minor examples of subversive images or references in the official press during Fidel’s long reign. However, the Gulliver mockery of Antonio is vastly more inimical to revolutionary morale than anything in the Cuban press since at least the mid-1960s.

Cubans in the streets have noticed. Some with internet access no doubt have found videos and images of Antonio luxuriating during a recent vacation when his bodyguards scuffled with cameramen at a Turkish resort. According to the Diario de Cuba, informed Cubans have wondered about “the pompous vacations of the children of power.” One observer complained that “this little lord is permitted such liberties because of his unique privilege as Fidel’s son.”

Damage is still being inflicted. The Gulliver article remains available to anyone with access to the internet, displayed at the top of the Havana Tribune website for the publication date. Why has it not been pulled? Why has the regime not acted to quash what is so embarrassing to Fidel, his wife Dalia Soto del Valle, and their favorite son?

What seems most likely is that the article was approved, perhaps even caused, by Raúl Castro. The power and prestige he has accumulated since succeeding his brother in 2006 is unchallenged and total by any conventional definitions. But the ailing Fidel’s inner sanctum, especially his wife and immediate family, are most likely beyond Raúl’s reproach.

He and top officials close to him must be appalled by the international media coverage Antonio has attracted. How inconsistent it is with the straining mythology of revolutionary virtue and Cuba’s alleged suffering under the American economic embargo. None of Antonio’s four brothers — Dalia’s sons — have been reported conspicuously abusing revolutionary privilege. Thus, by singling him out in the Gulliver article, Raúl’s expectation probably was that Antonio could be reined in, shamed into living more modestly, or at least more discreetly.

Yet, it is also possible that the queenly Dalia, reigning supreme now for years in the elder Castro household in Jaimanitas, also needs reminding that true revolutionaries should eschew lavish consumption. She has been photographed, and not infrequently, elaborately coiffed and finely attired, wearing looping strings of pearls.

Raúl says that he intends to step down from the presidency early in 2018, so he has only two more years to cement his and his family’s legacy. An essential prerequisite before he passes the torch will be to assure that the Castro clan, its multitudinous members, and their financial and property holdings wherever they may be, will be protected. The attention his nephew Antonio has attracted undermines that goal.

Guarding the family’s interests may in fact become the principal responsibility of Raúl’s only son, Alejandro Castro Espín, a ranking colonel in the Interior Ministry. As I have written previously, the image of revolutionary probity that the ambitious Alejandro projects stands in stunning contrast to the lassitude of his cousin, Antonio Castro Soto del Valle.

Brian Latell is an historian of the Cuban revolution and author of “After Fidel” and “Castro’s Secrets.” He is a former senior Research Associate at the Institute for Cuban and Cuban American Studies.