Saturday, February 27, 2016

Ramón Castro y Ruz (1924-2016)

Ramón Castro y Ruz will be remembered, if he is remembered at all, as Fidel's older lackluster (some have even said "uneducated")) brother, but he was no such thing except as an imposture that assured his survival in a tribe dominated by a cheating Jacob. Ironically, Ramón was actually the one successful son in that family of wastrels. Of course, we do not consider Fidel or Raúl a success because their race was run without competitors. They shot, jailed and exiled anyone who threatened their monopoly on power, whether political or economic. Ramón was almost their first victim.

Before the Revolution, Ramón excelled as a politician and businessman. While Fidel never held a job in his life and depended on hand-outs from his family to support himself and his wife and son, Ramón prospered as a rancher and was thrice elected a councilman in his hometown of Mayarí — the first and only Castro ever to win a free election in Cuba. When his father Angel Castro died, Ramón purchased from his seven brothers and sisters their respective shares in his estate, which consisted of a 21,000 acre plantation and 28 outbuildings. We will not discuss how the paterfamilias acquired his property; his son Ramón, however, came into possession of it honestly.

He was not to enjoy it for long, however. One of the first things that Fidel Castro did upon coming to power was to confiscate his brother's land. Of course, his brother's along with everybody else's. With their backs literally against the (execution) wall, most landowners did not protest. Ramón did.

On his own behalf and as president of the National Association of Cuban Landowners (Colonos), he wrote a public letter to Fidel protesting the so-called Agrarian Reform, which resulted in the confiscation of all the country's arable land, not for the purpose of re-distributing it to the peasants (who were confined by Castro to cooperative farms), but to deprive the landed gentry of the source of their wealth and influence by replacing thousands of landowners with just one. Ramón's letter was published in Prensa Libre just before Castro nationalized and shut down every newspaper in the country.

Let us not overrate Ramón Castro's courage. He was the tyrant's brother and that was a title that could not be stripped from him. Still, he took a chance and it was a close call. Fratricide is certainly not beyond the brothers Castro, who had already executed 15,000 Cubans without due process or appeal in a country where the death penalty did not exist before 1959. Incredibly, more Cubans were shot by firing squad that year than died of natural causes. Fortunately for Ramón, Lina Ruz was still alive at the time.

Still, at Fidel's instigation (and some think in his own words), Ramón was attacked viciously in the government press as an "hermano desnaturalizado" (unnatural brother), accused of being a tool of United Fruit and a coward who had abstained from the struggle against Batista while his brothers directed the Revolution (always at a respectable distance and out of harm's way). Unlike his sister Juanita, the other discontented sibling in the Castro family, Ramón did not go into exile; but eventually decided that the intangible advantages of being the dictator's brother might well be worth 20,000 acres if he stopped demanding as his right what was now only in his brother's gracious gift. His gamble paid off. The brothers were reconciled and Ramón got back his plantation and became the only (and last) rancher in Cuba.


On re-reading this post it now seems to me that Ramón Castro comes off as too much of a hero for his initial opposition to the Agrarian Reform. Let it be noted, therefore, that Ramón Castro was also very much his father's son. He not only inherited Angel Castro's plantation but ran it exactly as his father had. He contracted for Haitian laborers, who were not allowed to live outside the grounds of the estate and were paid in script that could only be redeemed at the company store. Wholly dependent on their amo (master) for survival, the Haitians had even less protection than did 19th century Cuban slaves. They could be replaced easily and at no cost, whereas the death of a slave a century earlier meant the loss of an investment of thousands of dollars. For his harsh treatment of the Haitian "guest workers," Ramón Castro was known among the rebels in the Sierra Maestra as "el negrero" (the black slaver).

Like his younger brothers, Ramón was a sociopath accustomed to winning arguments with a gun. It is not known how many Haitians he killed, but he was accused though never prosecuted for the murder of four fugitives from the Moncada Barracks who had sought refuge at the Castro plantation in Birán, presumably because he feared he would be  implicated personally in the attack. That's one more victim than Fidel killed in his youth, and he, too, escaped prosecution. Fidel was careful never actually to face his adversaries, but preferred to shoot them in the back (that way, if they survived, they could not identify him). The worst, though, was little brother Raúl, a serial killer just out of his teens. While ensconced in the hills, he entertained himself by hunting for "spies" among the rebel ranks and executed more of his own men as "traitors" than were felled by Batista's soldiers (46 executions vs. 35 casualties, in 1957). At one point, Fidel had to tell Raúl to stop because he was single-handedly winning the "war" for the enemy ("war" is in quotations marks because there were a total of 184 battlefield casualties on both sides in 3 years of alleged fighting).