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Castro - from ally to enemy

A book of his prison letters helps a former friend recount their split.

By MEG LAUGHLIN
Published February 27, 2007


MIAMI - Spanish television commentator Luis Conte Aguero strides across his Little Havana office, pointing out photos on the wall: He pats Kennedy on the shoulder, whispers to Johnson, embraces Nixon. He hugs Ford and shakes hands with Carter.

But the person these presidents were talking to him about is conspicuously absent: Fidel Castro.

For nearly 60 years, Fidel Castro has been the focus of Conte Aguero's life, first as his beloved protege, then as his loyal comrade and finally as his archenemy. His daily commentary on Spanish television in South Florida is about Castro. His meetings with dignitaries and world leaders are about Castro. He speaks about him at breakfasts, banquets and rallies several days a week.

"He is my career," says Conte Aguero, 82.

On this chilly February day, he is again talking about Castro - this time the topic involves the letters Castro wrote to him from prison in the early 1950s.

In 1959 the letters were published in Cuba in Spanish. Today, The Prison Letters of Fidel Castro will be released in the United States for the first time.

For the 1959 publication, Conte Aguero penned an introduction heaping passionate praise on Castro as "the American hero ... with a heart of steel." Now, 48 years later, Conte Aguero ends the new English-Spanish version with equal passion. But this time, it is disdain: "He subverted and defiled the eternal values of liberty."

Of his shift in emotions, Conte Aguero says: "I once survived because of hope for Fidel Castro. Now, I survive to fight him."

Their relationship began when the two young men were at the University of Havana in the late 1940s. Castro was a law student, Conte Aguero a graduate student in philosophy. They met when Castro argued with him at a student meeting, then apologized.

"There was a noble portion to him," says Conte Aguero, who invited Castro, two years his junior, to become a part of an organization working for democratic change in Cuba.

When the beloved founder and leader of the organization, Havana radio commentator Eddy Chibas, committed suicide on Aug. 5, 1952, Castro and Conte Aguero were there. After a poignant radio speech calling for reform in Cuba, Chibas shoved a loaded pistol in his gut and pulled the trigger.

"Fidel and I carried Eddy's bleeding body to a car," said Conte Aguero. "This tragedy cemented our friendship for many years."

With the loss of Chibas, who may well have been elected as president, a political vacuum was created in Cuba. Former President Fulgencio Batista then took over in a coup d'etat in 1952. Castro, with Conte Aguero's blessing, organized an attack against Batista's soldiers, which landed Castro in prison. It was from a cell at the Isle of Pines prison, where he served from late 1953 to the spring of 1955, that Castro wrote the letters to Conte Aguero and others.

The letters, sneaked out by a prison worker, were not censored, Conte Aguero says. They went by ferry through several hands until they made their way to the house of Castro's sister in Havana, where Conte Aguero picked them up. Castro wrote them on a grainy wooden plank in black ink on paper the texture of coarse toilet paper. Given the paper and the writing surface, the cursive is remarkably neat.

Ann Louise Bardach, who writes about Cuba for the New York Times and Vanity Fair, found a rare Cuban copy of the letters and made the deal to publish them. She wrote the introduction to the bilingual version, calling the 21 letters "a Rosetta Stone for historians, biographers and journalists seeking to understand the man who would become Cuba's ruler for life."

In a 1953 letter to Conte Aguero, Castro spells out his plan for the future of Cuba: to take land and sugar profits from the wealthy and redistribute them to sharecroppers and workers, "splintering the organized resistance of powerful interests." He also says that "propaganda ... should be so powerful as to implacably destroy anyone ... against the movement."

Conte Aguero, who describes himself as "always fiercely anticommunistic," says he agreed with the redistribution plan as a "way to achieve social justice for the workers."

"Communism did not occur to me at the time," he says.

As for the propaganda, he says: "In the very early days, it was necessary for consolidation."

Over and over, the letters show Castro's love and admiration for Conte Aguero, whom he calls "dearest brother" and "my dearest friend ... who towers above the putrid surroundings."

"You can see his devotion to me," says Conte Aguero. "I was his mentor."

After 22 months in prison, Castro received amnesty and went into exile in Mexico. There, he founded a movement to oust Batista. He returned to Cuba in 1956 and the movement grew. In 1958, the United States stopped supporting Batista and withdrew military aid. In early 1959, Batista left the country and Castro and his guerillas marched into Havana. Conte Aguero, in exile in Argentina, returned to Cuba.

"We rejoiced," says Conte Aguero.

A few months later, he published a Havana edition of the prison letters, with Castro's prison mug shot on the cover. To introduce the letters, Conte Aguero wrote of Castro, "Here is the hero."

Their relationship unraveled quickly, however, as they moved in different directions. By the end of the year, Conte Aguero had become disenchanted, he says, "because he refused to allow any political parties that weren't communist."

To deflect Castro, Conte Aguero began appearing on Cuban radio and TV and saying that Castro had misrepresented himself to the people.

Soon after, Castro responded on television, saying his former close friend was "inventing phantoms."

"This is the way an enemy talks. ... This is a case of bad faith," Castro announced.

When Conte Aguero called a radio station to respond, he says the station manager called him "crazy."

"I knew it was over for me," he says.

When he left Cuba for New York on April 5, 1960, Conte Aguero carried nine of the hand-written letters from Castro in the inside pocket of his white suit. A year later he moved to Miami, where he began a career of lambasting his former friend.

"I have cafe Cubano with him in the morning and a glass of red wine with him at night. My life is always about him," Conte Aguero says.

He checks regularly with sources connected to Havana for information he can share on Miami radio and TV and in speeches about the Cuban leader and his health. Recently he reported that Castro's ex-wife Mirta, whom he wrote from prison, is with Castro in Havana.

As dark falls on this February day, Conte Aguero grabs a folder from his office and races to his car to drive to an anti-Castro rally, where he will speak once again about the subject that occupies his life.

"The letters show that I was once the leader," he says. "But now I am only an echo."

Meg Laughlin can be reached at mlaughlin@sptimes.com.

Excerpts from Castro's letters

Dec. 12, 1953

Dearest brother Luis Conte:

With the blood of my dead brothers, I write you this letter; they are the only motive that inspires me. More than liberty and life itself for us, we are calling for justice for them.

June 12, 1954

Dear brother:

... About me, I can tell you that my only company happens when they lay out a dead prisoner in the small funeral parlor across from my cell; there are occasions of mysterious hangings, strange murders of men who were beaten and tortured. But I cannot see them because there is a six-foot screen blocking the only entrance to my cell so that I cannot see another human being, alive or dead. It would be too much magnanimity to permit me the company of a corpse!

Aug. 14, 1954

Dear Luis,

... Conditions indispensable for the integration of a true civic movement are ideology, discipline and leadership. All three are essential but leadership is basic. ... No movement can be organized if everyone thinks they have the right to make public declarations without consulting others; nor can anything be expected if it is constituted by unmanageable men who, at the first disagreement, take the path they deem more convenient, tearing apart and destroying the movement. The apparatus of propaganda and organization should be so powerful as to implacably destroy anyone trying to create fissures, cabals, and schisms or to rise against the movement.