JUANITA, THE “REBEL” SISTER
In the context of Fidel Castro’s life, it’s been quite common to keep quiet about women. The anonymity seems neither accidental, nor should it be simply regarded as a manifestation of gender discrimination, since there are a number of other things that haven’t been included in his public image, such as his sense of family. In addition to it, over the years there has been no other intelligent mind in Cuban history, no other strong individuality (regardless of blood ties, sex, ideology or any other rank there could be) destined to stand out or even share the same platform with the Maximum Leader.
The identity and composition of Fidel Castro’s family has always been a taboo (like everything forbidden), due to which it has become an issue of attraction and speculation. Within the narrowest and most passive circle of the Castro Ruz family full of girlfriends without names, faceless wives and children and numerous relatives who have never posed together in a group photo available to the public, one figure stands out: that of a “cursed” woman Juana Castro Ruz, the sister who dared to step out of the shadow and accuse the family. She dropped the bombshell when she applied for political asylum in Mexico, reading out surprising statements to the press on June 29, 1964: “The woman standing in front of you, talking to you right now, is Juanita Castro Ruz, sister of the Prime Minister of the communist Cuba, Fidel Castro.”
All her reasons for leaving the country as well as the harshness of her accusations can be explained by a single adjective, which has unexpectedly become the first name of her homeland: “Communist Cuba”. She didn’t wait for being called a traitor and defended herself straight away, arguing that she had been, in the first place, flagrantly deceived, like the rest of the nation because back in the Moncada and Sierra Maestra days, while hundreds of Cubans were dying in the struggle against Batista dictatorship, cherishing a dream of restoring the Constitution of 1940, Fidel used to claim that he was not a Communist. After half a century of living in the exile, Juanita has once again come into the limelight with the publication of a book entitled “Fidel and Raul, My Brothers (Aguilar, 2009), with the secondary title of “The Secret History, Memories of Juanita Castro as told to Maria Antonieta Collins”. The book was finished already in 1999 after months of confidential interviews, but it took ten more years before the protagonist gave her consent to publication.
One of the greatest confessions among the many and various ones she makes in her book is perhaps her CIA affiliation. Having worked for the agency in Havana, she says she was able to use the paralysing influence of her surnames to achieve various things, for example, to save someone from summary proceedings or help them go into exile. Other facts that can catch readers’ attention include details of Fidel Castro’s hidden love affairs, funny stories from everyday life and some less known particulars about the people who carried out the Revolution or about their heroic deeds.
The book is very well written, allowing you to immerse in any of the 51 chapters and leave again as if it were a novel or a train with many doors. Conversational and narrative style prevails over categorical statements. The 1st person narrative tells a story of an unquestionably nice woman of a strong character, its sweet tone caressing the detailed memories; the most prominent feature, though, is its clear and direct style.
The author’s main concern, which had actually made her publish her memoirs, is the need to reveal the truth about the childhood she spent with her brothers and sisters, about her family, her grandparents, but mainly about her mother and father, who had been slandered by historians seeking to attack Fidel, trying to justify his actions by an allegedly dark and cruel family origin, portraying his father, owner of a farm in Biran, where Fidel grew up, as an unscrupulous man who had become rich through crime. Thus, in an effort to clarify the facts, the author devoted an essential part of her book to her childhood memories. “I’m terribly sorry to disappoint minor historians and would-be psychologists,” she says, adding her own opinion on her father: “Angel Castro Argiz was a man who cared for other people. He would never turn down anybody who had come to ask for a favour or help”. Sometimes she also reveals feelings of nostalgia: “Back in Biran we were like one big family because we all knew one another”.
I thought that the book could be a distillation of resentment; instead, I found anguish and common contradictions of a woman who consciously decided, as a last resort, to deal with a part of her own biological being, or rather, with constituent parts of her family and homeland. One of the things that struck me, for instance, was that she has not given up love for her youngest brother, Raul, or “Musito” as his mother called him. She takes his side and presents him to the reader in very human situations, such as at the death of their mother, Lina Ruz, when he was inconsolably crying and talking to the corpse of the deceased. Note the contrast between this image and the statement that follows: “But for Fidel, emotions mean weakness.”
These memories create a sense of an open confession. Yet, I don’t think there are reasons to believe everything she writes about. Memory is never harmless. First, sometimes it depends on how we see things and Juanita gives us only her interpretations of the events. Thus, we are presented with only one point of view, a close one, perhaps a bit too close, which gives us both advantages and disadvantages. What I mean is that it would be just logical to assume, for example, that a foreman’s daughter would write more emotional and affectionate memoirs than a subordinate and both of them would be telling the truth.
According to her testimony, she broke with the CIA when she was asked to give another shocking statement to the press, a similar one to her “asylum speech”, but this time its intended purpose was to dispel fears about communism: in order to avoid nuclear war, the Soviets had reached an agreement with the United States on condition that it would stop providing support to anti-communist groups in Miami. The moment when Juanita most resembles any ordinary Cuban, from any of the two shores, and the island of Cuba itself, is when she shows her vulnerability when unjustly attacked, manipulated and ultimately, in the midst of the waves and storms, alone: “[…] in that fight we were nothing but pawns in a game of chess,” she comments.
Towards the end of the book, the tone of the narrative becomes typically Cuban, as she feels as the most miserable person in the world; yet, at this point, she should be given credit at least for becoming a symbol, a paradoxical example of the tragedy that has divided families between homeland and exile, herself serving as a proof that not even the Castro Ruz family has escaped unharmed: “No doubt I’ve suffered more than the rest of exiles because I can’t find peace on any of the two sides of the Florida Strait and there are only few who understand the paradox of my life.”
An observation from the book that I find both true and pathetic reads: “[…] hatred has always prevailed over our reason.” Fortunately, in the end she invokes the future, cherishing hopes for love, but not prophetically; she makes a gentle appeal to the youngest of the seven siblings: “Raul, the democratic transition in Cuba might be in your hands. […] Helping Cuba towards a dignified evolution could be your big chance in history…” Hidden behind these words is a typical woman calling her children home in the evening, imploring them to stop playing at war.