Juanita Castro Plots an Independent Path in Exile

Fidel and Raul Castro's sister Juanita, 73, has lived in Miami for decades. She is critical of her brothers' government — she hasn't seen Fidel since 1963 — and of the Cuban exile community in Florida.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Fidel Castro hasn't been seen publicly since falling ill in July. Fidel's illness and his turnover of power to his brother, Raul, have prompted renewed scrutiny of Cuba and its future, which inevitably leads to the very large Cuban community in Miami.

Today, MORNING EDITION begins a series examining the Miami Cubans. It's a history of broken families and people divided by politics. So it may not surprise anyone to learn that there are members of the Castro family in Miami too.

NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro spoke to Juanita Castro, Raul and Fidel's sister, who lives in South Florida.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: Juanita Castro looks more like her bother Raul. She's got a rounder face than Fidel's and a shorter, more compact body. She's elegantly dressed in a jacket and pants. When she greets me, she admits to feeling harried because she's selling the pharmacy she's run for years in Little Havana to a major national chain. It looks like she's settling up accounts.

We speak in her small office at the back of her shop. Like many exiles, she prefers her native tongue.

Ms. JUANITA CASTRO (Sister of Fidel Castro): (Speaking foreign language)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'm a very private person, she says. I don't like to be making statements and I don't like cameras or microphones, she says pointedly looking at mine. Like her brothers, she has strong personality. Still, in an interview that lasted about an hour, Juanita Castro reminisced.

(Speaking foreign language)

Ms. CASTRO: (Speaking foreign language)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You look sad, I say to her. I am sometimes, she replies. It's been a hard life, she says. Even though she's utterly opposed to the regime in Cuba, Fidel's illness has been difficult for her.

Ms. CASTRO: (Through translator) It worries and hurts me; he's my family. There comes a time when you have to separate politics from the ties of family, of blood. I cannot be happy that Fidel is sick no matter how negative he's been for our country, how terrible the regime he's led for so many years have been. I don't wish him the worst.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Still, she hasn't seen or spoken to Fidel for decades. A political rift that, like many in the Cuban saga, evolved into a family feud.

Ms. CASTRO: (Through translator) Last time I saw Fidel was in 1963 when my mother died in my house of a massive heart attack. One afternoon, at about 3 p.m. or 4 p.m., he showed up with Raul and all the bigwigs of the government. I wanted Irma, my sister, to come from Mexico where she was living for the burial. I asked him if he could do something. And of course he could have. But he didn't make any effort. I had an argument with him. And after that I never spoke to him again.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Seventy-three-year-old Juanita is one of seven children born to father, Angel Castro, and mother Lina Ruz. Juanita says she doesn't really remember her family being particularly political in the early days.

Ms. CASTRO: (Through Translator) When it was summer, we'd go to the beach together, we bathed in the river together. We had picnics on the shore, we celebrated life and our youth when we were just kids. We were happy.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Still, she was always closest to her brother Raul. She says he at first wanted to become a radio broadcaster. He had a good voice, she says. That's surprising, as Raul has never been known as a particularly strong speaker.

Fidel eventually took Raul off to Havana. The other siblings too joined his cause, with Juanita coming the U.S. to raise money for the fight against the dictator, Fulgencio Batista.

Ms. CASTRO: (Through Translator) When Fidel comes to power, full of glory, I was at first very happy that revolution triumphed. I thought there would be in Cuba a change. Not radical like the one there was but a cleaning of the country; no more thieves, no more influence peddling. I was dreaming of a better country.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: For the first year, she managed a hospital. She still speaks with pride of all she accomplished: a children's ward, more beds, access for everyone.

Ms. CASTRO: (Through Translator) Then came the hurdles. That democratic revolution I dreamt of wasn't taking place. There were injustices that were committed, intrigues here and there and everywhere. If you had something they wanted, they would take it away and destroy it. After about a year and half into the revolution, I started to speak out and say this has no future. We all have been betrayed.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: On the day her mother died, she decided to leave. She pretended that she was going on a short visit to Mexico to see her sister. Eventually, she arrived in Miami.

Ms. CASTRO: (Through Translator) There was no worse place to live than Miami precisely because I'm Fidel's sister. They have really attacked me a lot. I first came on a visit through the invitation of one of the exiled groups in 1964. But when I got to Miami, they insulted me. I remember a tabloid ran, a screaming headline calling it a disgrace that I was here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She hasn't taken the slurs lying down. She sued Fidel's natural daughter Alina Fernandez for slander regarding passages in her autobiography and won in a Spanish court. Alina also lives in Miami and has an anti-Fidel radio show.

Juanita seems disillusioned by the exiled community; she is a critic of their politics too.

Ms. CASTRO: (Through Translator) We've been here for 47 years; have we gotten anything? Do we have anything positive to show for it? We haven't achieved anything.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She says she wants a free Cuba, but she now believes change would come from within the island.

Ms. CASTRO: (Through Translator) This is a process that is long. I don't see it happening around the bend, but happen it will. And those who can and will determine it are the people on the island. We're here to take orders from them, not go give orders to them.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Is Raul the man to start that change, I ask her.

Ms. CASTRO: (Through Translator) They have two totally different characters. Fidel is much more the head of state, the man of the regime. He directs it all. He determines everything. Raul was always closer with his family, with my mother, with everyone. I think he doesn't take things so seriously. I think destiny has placed him in the position he is now. I don't know if he'll be able to do anything different. I hope he does.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Juanita Castro has no children. Her business is sold. Will you go back, I ask her finally, if things change? Her face is inscrutable. The interview is over.

Ms. CASTRO: (Through Translator) No sé, she says. I don't know.

Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Miami.

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION form NPR News.

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