25 March 2006 17:39
Why Fidel Castro burns his underpants, by aide who defected
By Rupert Cornwell in Washington
Published: 25 March 2006
When you've held uninterrupted power for almost half a century, a dash
of paranoia and self-indulgence is inevitable. Which is why, presumably,
Fidel Castro has his underwear burnt after use, and sends aides across
the Atlantic to spend a small fortune on Spanish cured ham.
Such are the latest details on the world's longest surviving head of
state and government, as provided by one of his former personal
assistants, Delphin Fernandez. The picture that emerges is of a man
obsessed with his health, his security and with personal details of
foreign businessmen planning to invest in Cuba.
Mr Fernandez is perhaps a biased witness, who makes a living in Miami
from a TV show where he dishes the dirt on Fidel and his brother and
probable successor Raul. "Cuba has a death sentence against me for high
treason," he told the Miami Herald this week.
But former specialists from the CIA - which for decades has been vainly
trying to get rid of Castro, by means that include coups, poison and
exploding cigars - say his allegations are highly credible.
In his years at the Cuban leader's side, Mr Fernandez was employed by
Havana's counter intelligence service to look after the family and keep
a close eye on their foreign investment contacts. Disillusioned, he
defected in 1999 during a trip to Europe where he had been sent to pick
up a Rottweiler dog in Germany for Fidel. He now describes the regime as
"a vast lie." Cuba's people "have been enslaved as cheap labour for
But it is the details offered by Mr Fernandez, rather than his political
denunciations, that are fascinating. He was told, for instance, by the
President's chief bodyguard, that Castro has his old underwear
incinerated so they cannot be laundered with deadly chemicals to
assassinate him. On another occasion, he was despatched across the
Atlantic to bring back a $2,500 consignment of 'pata negra' ham,
considered Spain's finest.
One way and another, President Castro seems somewhat quirkier and harder
to please than one of his current erstwhile nemeses, US vice-President
Dick Cheney. As Mr Fernandez was recounting his experiences, a memo
leaked in Washington has described Mr Cheney's requirements for hotel
over-nights when travelling in the US.
They are in fact pretty modest: mineral water in the cooler, the room
thermostat set to a cosy 68 degrees fahrenheit, all lights on when he
arrives and the TV pre-set to the reliably sympathetic Fox News channel.
There are some similarities. Like Mr Cheney here, the Cuban president
travels around Havana in an imposing, heavily protected motorcade, in
his case headed by three almost identical black Mercedes. But Fidel and
his brother (and assumed successor) Raul, have no less than 300 cars for
themselves, their families and bodyguards. Mr Cheney, as far as is
known, does not share this indulgence.
According to Mr Fernandez, Raul - five years Fidel's junior - is the
more businesslike of the two. "Raul likes the money -- he has a
transition plan. Fidel doesn't. I think Raúl would want to lead an
economic transformation, and ultimately find a way to retire peacefully."
Meanwhile the veteran Communist is now the longest serving ruler of any
country. Once a decent baseball pitcher, Mr Castro was narrowly deprived
of his ambition of winning the sport's inaugural world championship
earlier this month, when Cuba lost in the final to Japan.
But he is still cocking a snook across the Florida Straits at the US
which has been trying to topple him ever since he took power in 1959,
and still defying reports of his imminent demise. In his more ambitious
moments, he must be quietly savouring the prospect off seeing off a 10th
US Presidency when George W. Bush and Dick Cheney step down in January 2009.