SIBLING RIVALRY GOES GLOBAL
Born in Biran in the province of Holguin in Cuba, she was the fifth child of Angel Castro and Lina Ruz.
Her father was Spanish and had been conscripted into his home country’s army to fight in the Cuban War of Independence (1895-98) – and he just stayed in Cuba afterwards.
Angel began by selling railroad ties and then made his fortune by selling sugar. He also bought a general store and invested in cattle. It is believed he was involved in many shady and illegal deals and bought land with his extensive profits.
He became one of the biggest landowners in Holguin.
Angel was married to Maria Luisa Argota and they had lots of children.
Lina Ruiz was his cook, and he began an affair with her. Juanita was the fifth child of this second relationship. Her older siblings were Angela, Ramon, Fidel and Raul.
Then, their father divorced Maria and married Lina. Two more daughters were born to them – Augustina and Emma.
Angel also had an illegitimate child with one of his female farmworkers.
All the Castro boys received a formal education, but the girls were denied it. Juanita was always very bitter about this.
By the 1950s, Cuba was under the brutal dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, a corrupt and repressive man.
A revolutionary movement began, calling for social justice. Juanita’s three brothers joined in. It was known as the ‘July 26th Movement’.
In 1956, two of them, Fidel and Raul were in Mexico, training as freedom fighters, when their father, Angel, died suddenly.
Her brothers gave Juanita the power of attorney over their father’s estate. She started to run the family farm and showed that she had her father’s entrepreneurial spirit, as profits instantly increased.
Juanita loved fast cars and treated herself to a green Chevrolet Impala.
Her three brothers were heavily involved in revolutionary activities and became wanted men. In 1957, Juanita was advised to leave Cuba for her own safety.
She took her car and went by ferry from Havana to Miami.
There, she got involved in fund raising for the July 26th Movement.
Juanita went up to Mexico City to spend Christmas with her mother and sisters, but when she tried to get back into the USA she found that her visa had been revoked. She had to sneak over the border as an illegal immigrant.
Juanita made her way back to Cuba to find herself on the ‘Most Wanted’ list. She lived under cover on a farm, but the Cuban police were tipped off and raided it.
Luckily, Juanita just managed to get away. She called on her close friend, Virginia Leitao for help.
Virginia was the wife of the Brazilian ambassador to Cuba. Juanita was sneaked into the Brazilian embassy in Havana, where she claimed sanctuary and lived for a few months.
That was where she was, when her brother Fidel led the Cuban Revolution in January 1959. Batista’s unpopular regime was toppled.
Juanita was just leaving the Brazilian embassy when the former Cuban Minister of Information arrived, to claim political asylum. They passed in the doorway.
She initially supported the revolution because of its social ambitions, and she began to set up health clinics. However, she was not happy with the violence that came with revolution.
Then, Fidel declared the country communist. This had never been mentioned before the revolution.
Juanita absolutely despised Fidel’s right-hand man, the revolutionary, Che Guevara. She hated him on a personal level, but also because she blamed him for turning Fidel into a Marxist – and for Guevara’s insistence on an armed struggle and repression.
Indeed, executions of political opponents began and religion was shut down.
Juanita’s hospital was about to be opened – and Fidel said he was sending Guevara to open it. It led to a blazing row between brother and sister.
In the end, Fidel sent another revolutionary to the opening ceremony – Juan Almeida Bosque.
Bosque was forced to listen to Juanita’s speech. “Democracy yes – Communism no.” This was greeted with loud cheers from the massive crowd.
Fidel introduced the collectivization of agriculture – ‘Agrarian reform’. He put Raul in charge of implementing the policy.
This meant the family farm that Angel had worked so hard to build up, was handed over to the state. Her brother Ramon, who had been actively involved in the revolution, was absolutely furious. “Raul is a dirty little communist. Some day I am going to kill him.”
Juanita took action. She sold the family herd of cattle. Fidel called her, “a counter-revolutionary worm.”
With her share of the money, she bought a guest house in the plush Havana suburb of Miramar. There, she put up people who were protesting about the regime and helped organize their escape. It is estimated she helped over 200 people flee Cuba.
Juanita was open about her counter-revolutionary actions, but remained untouched, because her elderly mother, Lina, lived with her.
When the American-backed Bay of Pigs invasion failed in April 1961, some of her friends were put in prison.
It was at this point, that her friend Virginia suggested that Juanita started working for the CIA.
A meeting was arranged with CIA agent Tony Sforza and Juanita flew to Mexico City. She was recruited to ‘Operation Mongoose’. The aim was, “To help the people of Cuba overthrow the communist regime in Cuba, from within Cuba.”
Juanita was recruit number one. Her codename was ‘Donna’.
The CIA set her up with a short-wave radio transmitter. When they had an important message for her, they would play Marchetti’s ‘Fascination Waltz’. If there was no news, it would play Puccini’s ‘Madame Butterfly’.
However, the Cuban Secret Services were onto her. As soon as her mother died in 1964, she was visited by her brother Raul. He had a thick file with him, which detailed every single action she had been involved in.
Juanita took this as a warning and decided to defect. She fled, by plane, to Mexico City.
There, she gave a press conference which was transmitted around the world. “My brothers, Fidel and Raul have made Cuba an enormous prison surrounded by water. The people are nailed to a cross of torment imposed by international communism”.
She liked to portray herself as a victim and talked about her daring escape. The chauffeur who took her to the airport was less convinced. She had taken 21 suitcases stuffed with luggage and had been allowed through passport control and customs with no checks.
Raul had arranged an exit visa for her.
Fidel was absolutely furious at her departure, claiming it made him, “personally very bitter.” He likened his relationship with his sister to families who supported different sides in the American Civil War. “While some fought for the freedom of slaves, others fought for slavery.”
Juanita and Fidel never spoke again.
Juanita moved to Miami, where her arrival was greeted with skepticism by many. They assumed the sister of the men who had forced them into exile, was a spy.
Which of course she was, still being funded by the CIA.
It is highly debatable how effective Juanita was as an agent. She was never in the Cuban government so had no access to state secrets. It is likely that the CIA used her mainly for propaganda purposes.
It took Juanita a long time to settle in Miami and she made few friends. A fellow exile said, “She was serious but always kind and respectful. As the sister of the Cuban dictators, she always tried to keep her family background from interfering with her fellow Cubans in Miami. Her opposition to Fidel showed a lot of bravery.”
She did have three very close friends though, all Cuban exiles. They were Ely Estevan and sisters Carmita and Hilda Morgarde. Previously, Juanita had organised all their escapes from Cuba.
Andy Warhol made a surreal film about her in 1965, entitled ‘The Life of Juanita Castro.’
In 1969, the US government of Richard Nixon was trying to reach détente with the USSR. As part of this, they softened their relations with communist Cuba.
Consequently, the CIA stopped funding her. She was bitter at being dropped.
She paid $5,000 for a pharmacy in Miami called ‘Mini Price’, and using her business skills, made a real success of it, working extremely hard, 6 days a week. She claimed she would have been a flourishing entrepreneur in Cuba, if nationalisation hadn’t happened – holding her back.
Juanita continued to campaign against communism throughout Latin America. In the Chilean general election, she broadcast 64 messages – until the Chilean government banned her.
Juanita became an American citizen in 1984. She kept in regular touch with her sisters. Angela died in 2012.
Juanita also used to talk to Raul. She was never as bitter about him as she was Fidel.
In 1998, Juanita sued her niece, Alina Fernandez (illegitimate daughter of Fidel Castro), for libel, after Alina published an autobiography called ‘Castro’s Daughter – An Exile’s Memoir of Cuba’, in which she discussed her aunt in negative terms.
Juanita won the case but was awarded just $45,000.
In 2006, she sold her pharmacy to a big corporation. In retirement, she was a keen gardener and took up fishing.
In 2009, Juanita published her autobiography, entitled ‘Fidel and Raul My Brothers: The Secret History’.
Her brothers, Ramon and Fidel, both died in 2016. She did not attend their funerals. When Fidel died there was great celebrations amongst the Cuban exiles in Florida, but not from Juanita. “In the same way that people are demonstrating and celebrating, I’m showing sadness…It’s my family.”
Raul Castro replaced Fidel as President of Cuba but stepped down in 2021.
Juanita claimed her brother Fidel was never a true Marxist. She said he had a thirst for power and had no interest in the Cuban peasantry. “Before the revolution, Fidel was normal.” She said she hated the way her brother turned on their father (even though he was dead), calling him a ‘capitalist exploiter’.
In one of her last interviews, Juanita said, “I live with pain in my heart, but I accept my destiny. I forgive everybody, including my brother…To leave your country forever is a big deal. To leave your family forever is a bigger deal.”
Her biographer, Ann Bardach, who became a good friend, said, “I think her life was lonely. There was a sadness at leaving it all behind.”
She is survived by just two of her siblings; Raul and the youngest sister, Emma.
RIP – Revolutionary Invests (in) Pharmacy