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'Castro-cam' enthralls exiles

Called both a bombshell and a joke, hyped footage depicts the Cuban leader's family life.

By DAVID ADAMS, Times Latin America Correspondent
© St. Petersburg Times
published November 18, 2002


photo
Castro
MIAMI -- It looks just like another jerky home video with the usual family scenes: kids in the garden with a parrot, Dad on a scooter, a crowded kitchen.

But who's that old guy in pajamas and sandals at the end of the breakfast table eating grapefruit? No one seems to be paying much attention to him. The full gray beard looks familiar though. Isn't that Fidel Castro?

Yes, it's Miami's world exclusive "Castro-cam," a first-ever uncensored glimpse behind the scenes with Cuba's First Family. It's got many in Miami's Cuban-American exile community glued to their TV sets, although most Cubans on the island can't view it.

The video is being shown in short nightly news clips with explanatory interviews by Miami's Spanish-language Univision affiliate, WLTV-Ch. 23. Billed as a "world exclusive," it claims to rip the veil off what the station calls "the secret life of Castro."

Cuban exiles say the video exposes Castro as a hypocrite who lives in a comfortable home that is a far cry from the austere revolutionary principles he preaches to the Cuban people. Members of his family are also accused of exploiting their position and family name to fraudulently obtain foreign travel visas, as well as using state funds to buy each other presents.

"It's a bombshell. It's the first time we saw Fidel like this," said Humberto Rodriguez, a Cuban-American builder and decorator. "In Cuba they still think he lives like everyone else. Turns out he's just another bourgeois."

But critics say the 10-part series, which began last Monday and is being stretched over two weeks, is more about the November ratings sweep than real news. Some disappointed viewers say the video doesn't live up to its billing.

"It's a joke," said Pedro Gonzalez-Munne, editor of La Nacion, an exile newspaper. "Castro is only in the video for five seconds. He doesn't do or say anything."

The video was filmed by members of the Castro family, and sold to Univision for an undisclosed sum by Dashiell Torralba, 27, the former girlfriend of one of Castro's sons.

Torralba recently fled the island after being detained by Cuban police on suspicion of trafficking visas. Interviewed at an undisclosed location somewhere in Latin America, she told WLTV reporter Mario Vallejo that she decided to release the video to seek revenge against Castro's wife, Dalia Soto del Valle, with whom she had a stormy relationship.

She also confessed to her role in a $30,000 visa scam by which she said she sold Spanish visas with the help of her boyfriend, Antonio Castro, one of the Cuban leaders' five sons with del Valle.

While the video itself may not contain dramatic footage, it is the first time pictures have been seen inside Castro's home. His relationship with del Valle and the existence of their five children was also a closely held secret until recently.

According to Torralba, the Castro family lives in a complex of 13 houses, known as Punto Cero, or Point Zero, in an upscale district in west Havana. The neighborhood is where some of Cuba's wealthiest families lived before Castro's 1959 revolution.

The houses are tightly guarded. Not even Castro's younger brother, armed forces chief Raul Castro, is permitted access.

Castro's relationship with del Valle, a beauty from the southern city of Trinidad, goes back to the mid 1960s, according to Ann Louise Bardach, author of a newly released book called Cuba Confidential. Although they have five grown children, they were not married until the 1980s.

Their five sons all curiously bear names beginning with the letter A: Alejandro, Alexander, Alexis, Antonio and Angel. The first three are believed to owe their names to Castro's former nom de guerre during the revolution: "Alejandro." Angel is presumably named after Castro's father of the same name. Castro is believed to have at least three other children, including his first-born Fidelito, and daughter Alina Fernandez, who is a radio show host in Miami.

Del Valle has never been publicly recognized as Cuba's first lady. Instead that title has been reserved for Castro's sister-in-law, Vilma Espin, the most senior living female revolutionary commandante. Del Valle was shown on Cuban state TV for the first time last year at an anniversary event for Elian Gonzalez, the Cuban rafter boy who was rescued two years ago in the Straits of Florida, only to become the focus of a bitter international custody battle.

Castro has always declined to discuss his private life. In his most recent interview last month with ABC's Barbara Walters, he declined to answer a question about his grandchildren, who reportedly include triplets.

Castro's children have also been kept out of the public eye. Fidelito was briefly given a job as head of Cuba's nuclear program. None of the other children hold high-profile government jobs, although all are professionals.

Alejandro Castro works at a scientific research center, and Antonio is an orthopedic surgeon.

"The most remarkable thing about the video is the breach of security," said Oscar Haza, news director at WQBA 1140, one of Miami's top Spanish-language radio stations. "Castro is obsessed with security, and he must be shocked this got out."

However, Haza said some of his station's callers were not impressed. "Some people hoped to see more," he said.

The video will no doubt help WLTV boost its ratings. Early reports are that it doubled its audience last week. But, despite the hype, critics say it won't contribute much to Castro's downfall.

While his wife and sons live in comfortable seclusion, it can hardly be said that they enjoy a luxurious lifestyle by U.S. standards. The video does appear to show some expensive wine bottles in the dining room. Torralba said she and Antonio used money from the sale of visas to buy a microwave, satellite antenna and other household goods. It also paid for her $500 engagement ring, she added.

"The family image portrayed here appears to show that Fidel doesn't look after the needs of his children," said Jose Alfonso, a former Cuban intelligence agent who left Cuba 20 years ago. "There's no cocaine or dancing girls. The house doesn't have a (working) swimming pool, and there aren't even any servants in the kitchen."

Alfonso says the video is so tame, he suspects it may even be a Cuban intelligence plant. "The video looks to me tailor-made for an American audience. It shows Castro isn't the devil after all, he's just another human being."

-- David Adams can be reached at dadams@sptimes.com.

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