Ramon Castro is the Billy Carter of Cuba.
A bottle of rum, a pretty woman, a guitar, a tractor that works - and he's happy.
Not always. There was a time when Ramon wasn't at all convinced that his younger brother Fidel had all his marbles. After all, their father had built up a prosperous farm in the south of Cuba in Oriente and the boys stood to inherit it.
Ramon loved to work the land, loved to hang out with peasants, loved to be around the animals. And here was crazy Fidel, running off to the University in Havana, spending time with all those radicals, leaning dangerously to the left, thinking all those high-minded thoughts. Ramon was not at all conviced.
But he's come around.
Now he sounds like a religious convert, repeating his beliefs in communism over and over the way he once recited his catechism in Catholic school as a child.
Now he takes great pleasure in showing up at the official receptions, being treated like a celebrity, being fawned over by the women - until he's had a few too many mohitos one of Fidel's men will see him home.
Now he takes great pride in the government-owned cattle breeding station he runs in the provinces near Havana, driving around in his new Jeep, sporting his straw cowboy hat, bragging with proprietary pride about the spread to an endless stream of visitors.
"All the Americans who come here," he drawls in his Southern Cuban accent, "tell me this place is more beautiful than the place of Leeeeendohn Johnson."
It is over an hour's drive from Havana to the farm, mostly coastline and then through the hills. Ramon Castro waits on top of his tractor, earnestly buildozing a new road for his cattle to climb the hills. He abandons his bulldozer and jumps, like a cowboy, into his Jeep, making his way toward his visitors along a dirt road. When the Jeep stops he jumps out and bounds across the dirt to shake hands.
Physically, he is stunningly like his brother, Fidel, an enormous, heavy-set, gruff bear of a man, with a scraggly graying beard, a red face, a blustery manner, a ready teasing smile and bright dancing eyes.
Ramon is a redneck, Cuban style. He is a simple man, with little of the refinement of his most prominent brother. His politics are simple. Just as a Southern redneck would hang out in the local bar and damn the Commie-pinkos, so RamonCarter will damn the filthy capitalist-imperialists, inhis own good-natured way. And his Socialist-Communist rantings are done, always in an earnest manner, almost as if he were a child who had memorized something for his class and is trying hard to understand what he has memorized.
He offers a tour of the spread, and is off over the rocky mountain road, explaining everything as he drives.
He passes a group of cows grazing on a grassy slope. "Those are Canadian cows," he explains. "The best cows in the world. And they are also the most delicate cows in the world. They are as delicate as a woman."
His faces flushes as he gets a laugh in response and he is inspired to continue. He puffs on his omnipresent cigar. "In fact they are even more delicate than a woman. Because a woman can at least work the land. These cows don't do anything. They are very bourgeois cows.
"Now," he says, warming even more to his subject, "You may think that because they don't work they are counter-revolutionary cows. But that's not so. They are revolutionary cows because they give milk to our children."
A smug flick of his ashes and a pleased chuckle.
"This breed of cow does not get sick here," just explains. Could it be because he takes such good care of them?
He blushes again, modestly. "Oh no I'm just another worker of the socialist state."
Now he is into his socialist rap which he lapses in and out of, from time to time, almost as though to convince himself more than his visitors that he really believes it. He points to a horrible little dirt shack with a grass roof inhabited by peasant farmers.
"If the peasant doesn't want to live here he can give his land to the government and move into a free housing project with a free TV, furniture and refrigerator. Free education, recreation and medical care.
"Before the revolution there were 700,000 people out of work. They had no clothes, no houses, no nothing."
Those who worked only five months in the sugar cane fields. Cuba was a country starving. There was no food, no clothes, no houses, no nothing."
Enough of that. He puts his ideological rosary beads away, and pulls over to the side of the road overlooking a beautiful landscaped.
"Where is your camera?" he asks. "What? You don't have a camera? You are the first foreigner who has come here with no camera. I won't forgive you for not taking pictures of me. Well, you must marry a photographer then so he can take pictures for you."
Just then several Cuban men with camera around their necks arrive at the overlook carrying a transistor radio blaring out songs from radio Miami. They exchange a few remarks, then Ramon instructs them to take his picture with a visitor. They comply and he issues a command. "Have it ready by noon tomorrow." There is a gasp and then a nod of assent. THey are, it turns out, from the government radio and television.
Back in the jeep he continues the tour, lapsing back into his socialist routine. "The future of our peasants depends on the construction of cooperatives the results are magnificent. But a peasant who's lived for 70 years in his own little hut, well, a change is not so easy."
"Before the triumph of the revolution the sons of these farmers couldn't go to the beach," and he points across the hills to the ocean nearby.
"That was the province of the rich. If they went, they were thrown out. If they were black they had dogs set after them." He pauses, grins challengingly, "like in the U.S."
Then he pats his guest on the shoulder. "We like North Americans," he says." But not their system. They have spread many lies about our revolution. But in Cuba even the Catholics are part of the revolution. They belong to the CDRs (neighborhood block organizations throughout Cuba). They say we persecute the religious but a great majority of Catholics are our farmers and workers. Many lies have been said about the revolution. So if you want to go to Mass nobody will stop you."
He stops as quickly as he started and drives in silence for a bit, pleased with his recitation. He is told he looks like Fidel.
"Oh, no," he says, reddening with pleasure. "I'm much uglier. But thank you for the piropo (compliment). You like piropos? Our men in the street give them to you? They are very fresh, yes?" He guffaws, laughing heartily. "Oh, no, it's not machista (male chauvinist pig), It just runs in our blood."
There is speculation about Ramon Castro's age. He insists he is only one year older than Fidel. "I'm 50," he says firmly. But if he's 50 how can Fidel be 50, as he claims to be, he is asked."Ah ha!" exclaims Ramon delightedly. He loves the game, because, of course, the other speculation is that when Fidel went to the University he lied about his age in order to get in, making himself a year older than he is. Now, the story goes, Fidel cannot change back and though he is really 49 he still lies about it.
"I look older than I am," he says, pulling at his graying beard. "Agriculture makes you look older. But I have a child 5 year old. I already had four children and three grandchildren when I had this one. Now my wife is on strike. But I tell her: Why not? Why shouldn't a man continue to have children as long as he is biologically able?" With that, he grins, pulls his Jeep up to a modern row of tiny new houses in a small project, and leaps out.
"Now I am going to let you meet some peasants. They are the greatest peasants in the world. You can ask them anything you want."
A tiny elderly couple greet him at the door of their immaculate, pink cottage and lead us inside where they are sitting on their plastic-covered, state-provided furniture. Castro embraces them heartily and explains that they are peasants who gave up their land and are being rewarded by the state with a free house and a pension. The farmer, now in his 70s, explains how hard his life was on the tiny little plot of rocky land he inherited and, to Ramon's pleasure, says he is much happier now.
He points to plastic slippers he is wearning. "I couldn't wear these on the farm," he says."We had no floors."
Ramon is beginning to squirm. "Aren't you going to offer the norteamericana a drink" he asks, looking at his watch. It is shortly after 3 p.m. The peasant dutifully gets up and fetches a bottle of rum and several glasses. Ramon takes the glasses away from him and pours liberally into each glass. "We can't afford to drink like bourgeoisie," says the peasant testily.
The peasant's wife smiles patiently. "We had no children," she says. "Ramon is our only child and he's spoiled. He's the son of all the old ladies of this region."
"I feel very good being with the peasants," says Ramon. "Even better than when I'm home in Havana."
"See, says the peasant's wife," see how well we feel. Ramon is Fidel's brother and here he is sitting in our parlor."
Ramon looks embarrassed and kicks at the floor. "And I come here with dirt on my shoes," he says.
It is time to go and he stands up. He looks at a visitor's glass. "Aren't you going to finish your rum?" he asks then grabs the glass. "You know what we say in Cuba? We say if you drink out of a woman's glass you learn all her secrets."
He takes a huge swig. "I see you are a woman with a secret lover," he says, laughing. A second swig. "I see you are very intelligent." A third gulp and he empties the glass. He ponders for a moment, then looks up with a grin. "I see you are a woman with a socialist mind." he gives a yelp which sounds suprisingly like a Rebel yell, hugs the peasants and is back in his Jeep driving around.
He begins to talk about the situation of women in Cuba and again, one hears the party line but senses a certain lack of conviction even as he says the right things.
"Women's equality was unknown to us before in our society," he says. "The revolution and the changes taught me how to appreciate women. Now I appreciate a woman. She's not a slave of man but a comrade and she fights for her life and her country like a man."
He turns his gaze from the road. "You know, you should take our family code back to the U.S. It says in the law that men and women must share equally in the housework. It's about problems in a house of love. But if love doesn't exist in the home then the law won't help. If a man and woman don't love and respect each other no law will work."
Another pause. Then thoughtfully, "If the revolution gets to be a good thing, then it will be my religion. To love your neighbor, to have peace," and he makes a drinking motion as if to make a toast. "We must all divide our bread. The person who does not, is not a true revolutionary."
Ramon Castro drives silently for a while. Then he begins to muse, almost to himself, about his past and his brother.
"Fidel studies at the university," he says. "He became a lawyer. I didn't study. I lived on the farm in Oriente. I lived in the world of agricultural business and I am grateful to Fidel that in those days I was able to become a revolutionary. Otherwise I would have become an ordinary bourgeois. And this is a crime."
His mother, he says, during the early days of the revolution, was very sick. "I stayed with her as long as I was needed. Then the whole family went into exile. They left because forepression. Most of them in the United States. I stayed with my mother in Cuba. Than I spent six months on the second front with our younger brother, Raul." (Raul, 45, is now head of the Armed Forces of Cuba.)
After the revolution I continued my work on the farm for a while. There was a time when I worked in the government. Then I went to Oriente to organize the sugar situation.
"Then I went into cattle. I became interested in cows in Oriente. But I'm working here because you go where you needed. I could be here or in Angola. That is what makes us happy. Our children are even happy when their fathers go abroad to work or fight."
It is clear that Ramon Castro was very close to his mother and that her deep Catholic convictions have stayed with him. And he speaks of her softly and with reverence.
"During the revolution my mother stayed in the countryside between the Sierra Maestra and the second front. She was not afraid. She was a courageous woman. She had faith in the revolution. She was very Catholic and her children became Communists. Even at her death she had a religious service. She died in 1963. In wars it is the mothers who suffer the most."
There is another silence and he changes the subject again. This time to his brother.
He is, for some reason, using "we" now to refer to himself.
"It's possible I'd be a bourgeois today without Fidel. He showed us that money has no value and in spite of being younger he has been our chief political teacher. He showed us that hearts are worth more than money. That all people are international proletariats.
"When I think about Fidel I think we should feel more humble. To have a brother like him. We wish to feel like any other Cuban. I prefer to speak of him as my leader rather than my brother. I prefer to be modest. Revolution is one thing and the family is another. They are two separate businesses. In the first place, Fidel is head of the Cuban state. That is why we must be more modest.
"It is an honor. It gives us rights, not obligatins. Because of this we have no right to additional welfare. I want you to understand this well. Because of this I have to work harder every day and fulfill my duties as any normal citizen."
He pulls the Jeep into the yard by his little work cottage and stops. He leans against th steering wheel and wistfully stares out at the government-owned cattle grazing on government-owned land.
Then, solemnly, he went back to saying his ideological beads:
"I always had great faith in Fidel's thoughts," he says. "I knew his political persuasion. And I knew that whatever he offered he would fulfill due to his perseverance."