Barefoot and brave: Castro's ranch life
Nobody in Fidel Castro's village expected the boy who liked to walk barefoot and jump in the river to leave the comforts of his family's ranch to launch a revolution. The late Cuban leader and his brother, President Raul Castro, were born in Biran, a town nestled amid rolling hills and sugarcane plantations on the eastern end of the Caribbean island. His 77-year-old half-brother, Martin Castro Batista, who still lives in the village, remembers how Fidel kept quiet at home about his ambitious plans. "He spoke little out of fear that the old man would find out," Castro Batista said as he sat on a rocking chair in his home. Martin and Fidel are the sons of Spanish immigrant and wealthy landowner Angel Castro, but they have different mothers. Fidel's mother, Lina Ruz, was a Cuban peasant who had seven children.
A rural road with a simple sign reading "historic site" leads to the family's property, which is now a museum. Fidel Castro was born there on August 13, 1926. "We have more than 100 tourists per day at the moment, when normally we have 15 to 20, sometimes 50," said Antonio Lopez Herrera, 65, the site's official guide. "It has surged since Fidel's death" on Friday at age 90, Lopez said. Fidel Castro visibly had a privileged childhood. Angel Castro, who was a soldier when he arrived in Cuba, built a house with a red roof and yellow walls on a vast green space dotted with palm trees. Around the property, he built a school, a cinema, a grocery store, a bar and a post office. There's even a dentist's office and a cockfighting arena. "We never needed to leave," Lopez recalled.
Lopez gets emotional as he shows Fidel's small bed, where he slept for the first three months of his epic life. "He took time to fall asleep" and needed to be rocked, the guide said. "He was a very happy, very rebellious child," Lopez said. "He liked to be anywhere but home." Castro would jump in the river, ride horses and climb mountains. "He was an audacious, brave child," Lopez said. Castro walked around barefoot, hanging out with the ranch's 80 Haitian workers until his mother had to fetch him. He left Biran at age six to attend school in the seaside southeastern city of Santiago de Cuba, where his ashes will be laid to rest on Sunday after they are taken on a four-day ceremonial journey across the island.
Napoleon the hunting dog
But Castro always returned home for vacation. "He would hunt small birds with his dog, Napoleon," Lopez said, showing a photo of a teenage Fidel Castro posing with his rifle and pet. His half-brother, Martin, remembers that Castro "always walked around with weapons. He liked to hunt and he would fire in the air." Paco Rodriguez, 91, knew the Castro brothers when he was a child. The siblings affectionately called him Paquito. "We played together. We went to school together. We trained to box. We played ball," Rodriguez said with a nostalgic gaze. While dissidents in Cuba called Castro a dictator who jailed opponents, finding a critical voice in Biran about the "maximum leader" is impossible. "He was this place's prodigal son," Lopez said. "Here, even the rocks love Fidel." When Castro nationalized properties after the 1959 revolution, he immediately applied the law on the family ranch, building housing for locals on the land. While his parents built a comfortable house for him next to theirs, Castro never wanted to live there.
'A rich man'
Castro said he was affected by the poverty around his village. "All the friends with whom I played in Biran, with whom I went up and down, everywhere, are the poorest people," Castro once told Spanish journalist Ignacio Ramonet. "What probably most influenced me was that, where I was born, I lived with the most humble people," Castro said. Lopez said Castro "could have lived here peacefully" but instead he abandoned everything for the Sierra Maestra, the mountains in which Castro's guerrillas hid while fighting the army of US-backed dictator Batista. "He had everything. He was a rich man," Paco Rodriguez said. But his contacts with the Haitian workers made him "see that there are injustices," so Castro packed up "and went for it."—