HAVANA - Sarasota Herald Tribune - When the Cuban dictator's older brother shakes your hand, it feels like he's embracing you. Despite the fact that he's closing in on 80, Ramon Castro's grip is firm and he's never content with a simple shake. He rotates his palm and pulls you vigorously toward him. "You see, brother, I'm still strong," he says, and laughs to let you know he doesn't take himself too seriously. With his white beard shaved at the chin, dressed in an old cowboy hat gray from cigar smoke, a short-sleeve check shirt, black slacks and black shoes, Ramon Castro resembles an Amish farmer. "I'm just a guajiro," he says, a word that translates roughly into "hillbilly." Ramon's good-natured humility and aura of spirituality cause people to gravitate toward him. Those who recognize him realize he's a national treasure, someone who has fought for the principles of the Cuban Revolution without getting his hands dirty. "He's very clean," said his sister, Juanita Castro, who lives and works in Miami and has been a persistent critic of her more famous brother, Fidel. "Ramon is a wonderful man." But Ramon -- an adviser to the agriculture ministry and four other Cuban ministries under his brother's regime -- is the first to let you know he's no saint. He was considered a "skirt chaser" in his youth. Although happily married, he still loves to be surrounded by women. During the revolution, he acted as a quartermaster for his brothers and their warring troops, sending them food, fuel and ammunition. "I had 1,200 men," Ramon said. "All of them were thieves. We stole things for the war."
Thanks to an invitation from Naples businessman John Parke Wright IV, who has become a friend of Ramon's, I got a chance to meet the man during a trip to Cuba in March. We traveled with him from Havana to the Castros' ancestral home of Biran in Holguin province. For four days we bumped along Cuban highways in two well-worn Mercedes Microbuses with tinted windows. Every time we were flagged down by guards at highway checkpoints, their jaws would drop when they discovered who was inside. Our group consisted of 14 people: Ramon, his son Angel, four bodyguards, the head of a Havana organization that welcomes visiting Communists, a Cuban journalist, Wright, his translator, a former Interior Ministry official who now works with Wright, and a U.S. agricultural economist. Whenever we stopped to eat along the way, it was always at a safe house, a Communist Party headquarters or a private residence. Sumptuous banquets were laid out, with chicken, beef, pork, lamb, plantains, rice and beans, tomatoes, pineapples, papayas, guava jelly, cheese, dulce de leche and ice cream. These feasts made clear the difference between the haves and have-nots of Cuba.
Members of the Communist Party are the haves. The masses of people we passed along the highway, in horse-drawn carts, on bicycles, on foot or waiting for hours in the hope that someone would stop and give them a lift, are the have-nots. Unlike in other countries in Latin America, these people have shelter, enough food to avoid starvation and access to health care. But they have had to deal with chronic scarcity for more than a decade. Perhaps the clearest example of the two classes was presented during a luncheon at Maria Antonia Pujol's 1,500-acre ranch in the shadow of the Sierra Maestra mountains. Pujol is a rare breed. She has lived on the same property since before the revolution. Although the rest of her family fled after Fidel Castro took over, she remained behind and refused to give up her land. A close friend of the Castro boys, she was allowed to stay. Now she runs a farm where prize stallions and bulls are bred. "She is a social phenomenon," Ramon Castro said.
Fidel and his brother Raul, the head of the Cuban military, are far more famous than Ramon. But that doesn't bother their older brother. "Fidel has one ambition. I have another," Ramon said. "His thing is political. Mine is the street. I am free, and he's in a kind of a prison." Always interested in agriculture, Ramon has become more visible to Americans since Congress permitted the sale of a long list of agricultural and medical products to the island. He now regularly attends trade fairs and meets with traveling U.S. businessmen. Ramon Castro was born in 1924 on the 26,000-acre plantation his father, Angel Castro, established on stunningly beautiful land at the base of the Sierra Cristal mountains. The farm produced sugar cane, oranges, cattle and lumber, as well as enough food to feed the 400 people who lived and worked there. A total of 27 buildings formed the nucleus of the property. There was a small restaurant, country store, butcher shop, infirmary, schoolhouse, post office, living quarters for the family and employees, and a large circular building where cock fights were held. Most of the buildings were painted bright orange, because of the notion that the color of marigolds repelled mosquitoes. "It was an idealized community, ruled over by a strong father figure, who took care of the people," said an American academic who accompanied us on the trip.
The paternalism that Angel Castro showed his workers passed on to the next generation. Fidel Castro clearly sees himself as a father figure for the Cuban people, and Ramon sees himself as an uncle. One of the greatest compliments Ramon can bestow on someone is that he considers that person to be a member of the Castro family. He said that to Wright, and also said it to Victor Mesa, who coaches the Villa Clara provincial baseball team and is considered the Cuban athlete of the century. "Victor Mesa is a symbol of the spirit of the people of Villa Clara, a true son of the Castros," Ramon said.
Fidel was consumed by politics and Raul by the military, but Ramon's fascination was and is agriculture and machinery. He studied engineering at the University of Havana and later returned to run the family farm. While Fidel and Raul were fighting in the mountains, Ramon was taking care of his aging parents and making sure the crops got harvested. That doesn't mean Ramon wasn't supportive of his brothers. Quite the contrary. Historians point out that he was critical to their efforts. "Ramon, a half inch taller than Fidel, devoutly religious and in love with the farm, developed into a masterful organizer and quartermaster," writes Jules Dubois in his 1959 biography of Fidel Castro. "He mobilized a rebel pipeline from the cities to the mountaintops to get arms, ammunition, medications, supplies and men to his brothers." At a time when gasoline was hard to come by, Ramon's knowledge of agriculture and engineering enabled him to manufacture alcohol fuel from sugar cane, Dubois wrote. Ramon took 20 gallons of 95 proof alcohol and mixed it with a bottle of castor oil. He then instructed drivers of military vehicles to reduce the flow of air into their carburetors and close the choke tightly. It worked.
In 1961, Fidel Castro began expropriating properties belonging to Americans and wealthy Cubans. Ramon says the Castros' ancestral property in Biran was the first to go. It now serves as a museum and tourist attraction. "With one signature, Fidel took it all away," Ramon says, explaining that his brother had to show that everyone's lands were going to be taken over by the state, not just those belonging to enemies of the revolution. Over the next 40 years, Ramon devoted himself to the study of agriculture, exploring more productive ways to produce sugar cane, milk and meat throughout Cuba. A small museum in the house at the Alto Cedro sugar mill, where Ramon lived during the revolution, depicts him as instrumental in the development of Cuban agriculture. Among his accomplishments were the establishment of 40 dairy farms and the commercial application of embryo transplant technology. Ramon now lives in a modest one-story house not far from the Miramar neighborhood of Havana. The house is surrounded by fruit trees that produce avocados, oranges, grapefruit and mangos.
They grow tomatoes, onions, yucca and lettuce in a vegetable garden off their bedroom. Sheep, turkeys and chickens bleat, squawk and crow in a fenced-in area just beyond their shaded terrace. Over the couch in the living room is a large photograph of mountains in the province of Pinar del Rio, taken by Naples photographer Clyde Butcher. On another wall is a striking portrait of Fidel that lords over the room. On the bookshelf, there's a photo of Fidel, Ramon and Pope John Paul II, taken during the pope's visit to Cuba in 1998. You're not supposed to talk about it in Cuba, because the socialist country is avowedly atheistic, but rumor has it that Ramon remains a deeply religious man. His parents were ardent Catholics, and Ramon took to the church when he was young. "Where there was fire, there are embers," Ramon answered cryptically, when asked about his spirituality. Ramon's beliefs, whatever they may be, don't conflict with his intense support for the revolution. He praises his country's achievements in health care and education, and regularly bashes "the millionaires" and henchmen of Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista, who fled the country after his brother took power. "When the revolution triumphed, they took all the money. That's why they can't come back," Ramon said. "The person who steals can't be a believer." Though he bears a grudge against Miami Cubans, who have carried out terrorist attacks and hundreds of assassination attempts in their war against his brother's regime, Ramon makes it clear that he has nothing against the American people. "We want to end the blockade so they can enjoy our beaches and sunshine," he said.
Like many Cubans, Ramon wears his heart on the outside of his chest. He is deeply sentimental and takes great pride in the achievement of others. I often felt like I was on the verge of tears when I was with him, and I finally gave in on the trip back from Holguin province. He reminded me of my father -- his sense of humor and spirituality. I told Ramon that I wished they could have met, and I began thinking about my father's death and the sadness he felt at losing his land and business in Cuba. The sense of loss was so overwhelming that it forced silent tears to stream down my face. The other passengers in the Microbus fell silent when I started crying. Then, after a moment, Ramon began singing a Cuban song to cheer me up. A deep throaty baritone voice struggled from his smoke-singed vocal cords, and my tears were soon replaced with laughter.