MIAMI — Fidel Castro once claimed that he lived a life of exemplary revolutionary frugality on a salary of $36 a month.
“Lies,” said Juan Reinaldo Sánchez, 65, who served as a bodyguard for the former Cuban leader for 17 years and has published a book of memoirs portraying Castro as a sort of feudal lord who ran the island as a personal fiefdom.
Castro personally controlled about 20 luxury homes, a Caribbean island getaway with a pool in which dolphins swam, the 88-foot yacht Aquarama II and several fishing vessels whose catch was sold for dollars deposited in his accounts, according to Sánchez.
“He always claims he lives frugally. Lies. He lives in a luxury that most Cubans can’t even imagine,” he told el Nuevo Herald in his first interview after the book, “The Secret Life of Fidel Castro,” was published Wednesday in France.
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Sánchez said he lost Castro’s trust after his brother escaped from Cuba in 1994. Forced out of the personal-security details, he refused transfers and asked for retirement but was instead sent to prison for two years for insubordination. He spent the first three months in a scorching hot and mosquito-riddled isolation cell just 9-by-9 feet and dropped from 187 to 114 pounds.
After escaping aboard a go-fast boat to Mexico in 2008, he crossed the U.S. border and settled in Miami. A regular guest on South Florida’s Spanish-language television programs, Sánchez has previously alleged Castro approved a drug-smuggling operation that led to the execution of Cuban army Gen. Arnaldo Ochoa in 1989, and commented on other Cuban secrets.
Other defectors have confirmed Sánchez, a graduate of the Interior Ministry’s Higher School for Counter Intelligence Eliseo Reyes Rodriguez, spent many years on Castro’s Praetorian Guard, the last five in his innermost ring of bodyguards.
Sánchez has an inch-thick stack of photos of himself, in and out of the uniform of an Interior Ministry lieutenant colonel, and certificates of appreciation signed by Castro. His anecdotes cannot be independently confirmed.
His book says Castro, now 87, controlled several numbered bank accounts abroad and the finances of several state enterprises — including a small gold mine on the Isle of Youth — that reported to him as president of the ruling Council of State. When Castro received a Cohiba cigar box full of Angolan diamonds, he told an aide to sell the gems on the international market “and you know what to do,” Sánchez said.
None of the bank accounts or enterprises were in Castro’s name, but they didn’t have to be, the bodyguard said. “He didn’t have to report to anyone. He had sole control” over economic activity that Sánchez estimated at “hundreds of millions of dollars” over 10 years.
After Forbes magazine included the Cuban ruler in its 2006 list of 10 richest “Kings, Queens and Dictators,” Castro declared that his salary was about 900 pesos per month, or $36. The former bodyguard said part of the book focuses on Castro’s luxurious life because so little is known about it. The leader has said his personal life is a “state secret” because of the multiple attempts to assassinate him.
“Contrary to what he has always said, Fidel has never renounced capitalist comforts or chosen to live in austerity. Au contraire, his mode de vie is that of a capitalist,” says the book, written with Axel Gylden, a senior journalist at L’Express magazine in France.
Visitors to Castro’s home west of Havana, Punto Cero, have described it as relatively modest, yet far better than what most Cubans can even imagine. But Sánchez said that away from the public eye, Castro enjoyed a life of luxury, spending a month each year in the paradisiacal Cayo Piedra south of the Bay of Pigs and often spending weekends on a duck-hunting preserve in Pinar del Río called La Deseada.
Castro also controlled a complex of Havana buildings and grounds, including a basketball court, a fully equipped medical center and rooftop bowling alley, first established for him by one of his lovers and closest aides, the late Celia Sánchez.
Castro later married the mother of five of his dozen or so children, Dalia Soto del Valle, but had affairs later with a flight attendant, a translator and another woman, he said. Soto del Valle had her own affair with a chauffeur, but Castro forgave both his wife and the chauffeur.