BIRAN, Cuba — Not long after Fidel Castro’s new government began seizing farms and cattle ranches in a voracious expropriation campaign, his mother, Lina Ruz, looked out the window one day in 1960 and saw bearded soldiers in her orange groves.
She went outside to confront them with a rifle. They asked her to put the gun down and call her son. Castro had nationalized his own parents’ land.
Today the family’s former estate is a tidily groomed government historic site open to the public. It also serves as an unintentional monument to the economically ruinous changes Castro brought to rural Cuba, starting with the fiefdom of his immigrant father.
Set at the foot of mountains overlooking a green sea of sugar-cane fields 500 miles east of Havana, Angel Castro’s 25,000-acre plantation was a microcosm of the semi-feudal rural economy that Castro’s revolution would go on to destroy. With its own hotel, school, doctor’s office, market, butcher shop, movie theater, cockfighting ring, pool hall and lumber mill, it was known as “El Batey de Castro,” or Castro Town.
“His father wanted him to become a lawyer so he could defend his business interests,” said Maritza Hernández, who gives tours of the estate. “But Fidel had other interests in mind.”
Fidel Castro died Nov. 25 at age 90, but he will not be laid to rest here alongside his parents and other relatives. His ashes will be interred Sunday morning at the cemetery in Santiago de Cuba, the country’s second-largest city and the site of the hallowed tomb of Cuban national hero José Martí.
Castro replaced the old order in which his father had thrived with a state-dominated Soviet model that became one of his government’s most chronic and costly failures.
Cuba’s rural economy is so dependent today on horse carts and oxen that its farming towns look as if they’re drifting back in time toward the 19th century. Annual sugar production is less than 2 million tons, down from 8 million in 1989. The coffee harvest is one-tenth of what it was in the 1950s. Cuba imports some 70 percent of its food, and one of the primary tasks facing the next generation of leaders will be to figure out how to get the country to feed itself again.
Castro’s mother and sister Juanita never forgave their brother for ordering the nationalization of the family property. His mother died in 1963. Juanita turned against her brothers, worked for the CIA and fled to Miami in 1964.
The only sibling who still lives near the estate is Martin Castro Batista, 87, a half-brother born out of wedlock. Martin’s mother, Generosa Batista, was an 18-year-old employee at the Castro estate when he was born. She was not related to Gen. Fulgencio Batista, the military ruler Fidel’s revolution sent fleeing.
Martin hadn’t seen Fidel since 2003, the last time he visited the town, but he said he was proud of his brother.
“There’s never been anyone like him,” he said, sitting in a wooden rocking chair outside the modest, government-built home where he lives in Birán, the town next to the old family estate.
Martin said he never sought favors from his powerful siblings and was content as a simple farmer in their home town. “It’s quiet here in the country, and that’s what I like,” he said.
He lives with his 52-year-old son, who shares the same name and works as an audiovisual technician at the town’s cultural center.
Martin said his parentage was never a secret growing up. Fidel was sent to boarding school in Santiago de Cuba when he was 7, but Martin said he played often with Raúl, two years his junior, riding horses and shooting ducks.
Asked if he may have had other siblings in town who weren’t acknowledged, Martin laughed. “I can’t really say,” he said. “But everyone knew our father was a womanizer.”
Angel Castro grew up poor in rural Galicia, in northwestern Spain, and came to Cuba for the first time as a conscript fighting to preserve colonial rule. He returned a few years after the war, which ended in 1898 when the United States intervened and took control of the island.
Land was cheap, and by 1915, Angel began building his rural empire, partly with land he leased from the United Fruit Company, which along with other U.S. landowners had gained possession of much of the most fertile land of eastern Cuba.
Haitian laborers did most of the hard work in the cane fields. They lived in thatched-roof huts on the property, and Fidel Castro would later tell his many biographers that their exploitation by his father and other white landowners kindled his revolutionary zeal.
“He saw those Haitians living in poverty. Who would have guessed it would make such a big impression on him?” said Pedro Rodriguez, 91, who attended first grade with Fidel at the one-room schoolhouse on the property.
Angel Castro was 45, with a wife and five children who did not live at the estate, when he became involved with Fidel’s mother, a 17-year-old servant. They had seven children. Fidel was the second of three boys.
Though he spent most of his childhood at Jesuit boarding schools, Fidel returned frequently to his father’s estate, swimming in the creeks, shooting guns, riding horses and boxing. He would have grown up listening to his father’s grumblings about the U.S. companies that were his main competitors, as well as the cultural condescension of the American managers and the venality of Cuba’s political class.
Fidel and Raúl’s parents heard on the radio in 1953 that their sons had led a failed attack on a Santiago military garrison in an attempt to spark a rebellion against the Batista government. The big surprise for Angel was Raúl’s involvement, according to Hernández. “I knew I had a crazy son,” he said of Fidel. “But I didn’t know the other one would follow him.”
Ruz, their mother, was a devout Catholic and prayed for them daily as they were released from prison, then went to Mexico to train for a new uprising, returning by sea in 1956 to launch a guerrilla war against Batista in the Sierra Maestra mountains. Angel died before their return, at age 80.
Today his estate is a place wrapped up in Fidel mythology, where Cubans come to hear the story of a rich kid who rejected his father’s wealth for the cause of social justice. More quietly, they admire the quality of the craftsmanship of the home and the business acumen of Angel Castro. It’s a walk-through diorama of early 20th-century Caribbean capitalism.
Much of the estate was flooded by a dam-building project in the 1960s, and the government built Birán to relocate many of the local farmers there. The Castro Town name fell out of use.
There is still work in the sugar-cane fields, and the government is reforesting the mountains. “Everything’s fine here,” said José Tamayo, 29, who wore a USA baseball cap and a T-shirt that read “Miami.” But Tamayo didn’t say it very convincingly. “I’d better go,” he said.
Soldiers and local Communist Party officials were urging everyone onto buses and trucks for the ride to the highway, where they would stand waving flags at the caravan going by with Fidel’s ashes.