After more than half a century as enemies, the United States and Cuba will soon cease hostilities. Well, the two countries are going to try, anyway.
President Barack Obama recently announced that the U.S. would restore diplomatic relations with the island nation and ease some travel and purchasing restrictions. His argument for doing so is solid: We cannot expect different results if we continue doing the same thing we’ve done for decades. What Obama and millions of other Americans want is for Cuba to shed its authoritarian past and become a democratic nation that respects human rights and free speech.
Today’s Cuba, however, has a long way to go.
The brothers Castro – Raul, the current president, and Fidel – still rule the island, and Obama’s momentous announcement has not changed that equation, nor will it. Many Cubans are well aware of this, especially Juan Reinaldo Sanchez, who for 17 years worked as Fidel Castro’s bodyguard, when Fidel was president. From 1977-1994, Sanchez protected the Cuban leader, and wrote about his experiences in a book, “Fidel Castro’s Hidden Life,” which was published earlier this year.
“My family was a revolutionary family,” Sanchez told me during a recent interview. As a young student, he was selected to join Castro’s personal guard. “It was one of the best security detachments in the world,” he told me. No threat to Castro ever “penetrated our [security] ring,” Sanchez said.
Sanchez’s loyalty to Cuba and the communist regime was also impermeable. “I believed blindly in Fidel. To me, Fidel was the greatest – he was a god on a pedestal,” Sanchez told me. “I was not only willing to give my life for him, I was eager to do it.”
Due to his closeness to Castro, he said that for years he got to see firsthand how the communist dictator amassed a personal fortune, primarily through Cuban businesses whose profits, Sanchez said, went directly to the dictator. Castro also owns many properties in Cuba, according to Sanchez, including Cayo Piedra, two small islands connected by a bridge. He told me that Castro first visited Cayo Piedra in 1961. “He fell in love with those islands, and later made many modifications,” Sanchez said.
Cayo Piedra now features, in addition to Castro’s main estate, a guest house with a swimming pool, a dolphin aquarium, a tortoise nursery, a heliport and, according to Sanchez, “a 3-mile no-sailing zone around it, just so Fidel can fish.”
I asked Sanchez where Castro keeps his money. He said that while Castro has bank accounts in other countries, the central bank in Cuba maintains what officials call “the commander in chief’s reserves,” which not only include cash, but cars, trucks and other goods.
Sanchez also told me that part of Castro’s fortune came from drug trafficking. Sanchez said that in 1989, despite the fact that Castro would forcefully insist in public that the Cuban government had nothing to do with drug trafficking, the bodyguard overheard a private conversation between Castro and José Abrantes, then minister of the interior, that directly implicated Castro in the drug business. “That’s when everything fell apart for me, when everything crumbled” Sanchez said. “I spent more time with Fidel than I did with my own family, and after that moment I was in shock . I felt used, and angry.”
Sanchez applied for retirement in 1994, but, according to him, he was thrown in jail as punishment for trying to leave Castro’s employ. He spent two years in prison.
He made 11 attempts to flee the island, and finally managed to come to the United States in 2008. I asked why it took so long to tell his story. “I couldn’t talk about this in Cuba”, Sanchez said. “And it took me a long time to gather all the material [for the book].”
Sanchez and I actually met many years ago – at a summit in Guadalajara, Mexico, in 1991, which Fidel Castro was attending. Sanchez was on duty when I approached Castro, microphone in hand, to try and ask a few questions. We walked a few steps, and when I started asking Castro about the lack of democracy in Cuba, I was punched in the stomach (though it wasn’t Sanchez who hit me) and was knocked to the floor. Castro and his guards kept walking, never turning their heads.
Sanchez recalled that moment. “If you get really close, and there are cameras, you have to be very careful,” he said. “Fidel is very picky about his image, before the cameras, in public. So you need to be tactful. That’s why they punched you . they did it stealthily.”
These days it is Sanchez who is throwing the punches, and he’s not being stealthy. His revealing book demonstrates that nobody knows a dictator better than someone who was in charge of hiding his secrets. He also knows that the Castros won’t surrender power voluntarily.
Jorge Ramos, an Emmy Award-winning journalist, is the host of Fusion’s new television news show, “America With Jorge Ramos,” and is a news anchor on the Univision Network. Originally from Mexico and now based in Florida, Ramos is the author of nine best-selling books, most recently, “A Country for All: An Immigrant Manifesto.”