BY LISA ABEND | Miami Herald
Visiting an aunt on the outskirts of Havana, she was startled when a young man appeared in the patio, smelling of fresh dough and tomato sauce. ‘‘He told me he was a pizza maker,’’ she giggles. ``And that he adored my hair. It was love at first sight.’‘
Menéndez quickly learned his name was Alex, but it took awhile before she found out he’d been joking about the pizza. And a couple of weeks passed before she discovered his real identity.
‘‘We were in his car,’’ Menéndez recalls, ‘and he said, `I’m Fidel Castro’s son.’ ‘’
Twelve years later Menéndez, 34, still takes pleasure in recalling her days with Alex, but her memory is now tinged with anger and resentment. As girlfriend, and then wife to Castro’s son, she would be among the privileged few with access to the comandante’s famously secretive personal life. But the lively, outspoken woman says she also was subjected to intense pressure and near-Machiavellian manipulation.
In an interview with The Miami Herald, she provided a rare and sometimes surprising up-close view of life in the Castro household—a warm Fidel and his strong-willed wife, Dalia Sotodelvalle, and the well-off children of his brother, Raúl Castro.
The Havana daughter of a chemist and former schoolteacher, Menéndez studied computer science, took an office job and, at 22, was living at home when she met Alex, then 31, on her aunt’s patio in 1994.
Even today, it’s easy to see what attracted Alex. Stylishly dressed for this interview in a form-fitting jacket, her thick black hair running midway down her back, Menéndez today gives the impression of someone who speaks her mind clearly and convincingly, without mincing words or exaggerating.
The second-oldest child in the Castro family, Alex is not particularly good-looking—his family refers to him as El Gordito (an affectionate term roughly translated as ‘‘little fat one’‘)—and when Menéndez met him, his personal life was complicated. He was estranged from, but still married to, his first wife, and he had a mistress. Menéndez was smitten nonetheless.
Because Menéndez lived at home, and Alex’s first wife Miriam was still living at the Castro compound, the two at first spent a lot of time in Alex’s car. Within a few months, however, space in an apartment that Alex’s brother Antonio kept for his girlfriend opened, and the two moved in there together. The couple also frequently spent weekends at the Castro vacation home in the beach town of Varadero, although never when Fidel himself was around.
To avoid Fidel was Menéndez’s decision. In fact, Alex often invited her on family fishing trips with his father, but she always declined because she was unwilling to curb her opinions.
‘‘I was critical of many things that were being done in our country,’’ she says, ``and I knew that if I went, I would have to bite my tongue, which would take a lot of work.’‘
`I JUST LOST IT’
She gave in after her grandfather fell gravely ill with tuberculosis, and Alex accompanied her to visit him at the hospital. She was horrified by the conditions there.
‘‘They didn’t even have light bulbs,’’ she says. ``But they had two photos of Fidel and Raúl on the wall. I just lost it.’‘
Alex chastised her and said not all of Cuba’s problems were Fidel’s fault. He challenged her to meet his father and see for herself. She agreed, and Menéndez finally met Fidel at the wedding of one of Alex’s four full brothers. Fidel has three other children by different partners.
‘‘Fidel came in after the bride because he’s more important,’’ she says. ``But he came right over to me and introduced himself very warmly.’‘
At the reception, the two talked at length, and Castro invited her to come live with Alex at Fidel’s house. But she still had reservations about moving to the compound.
‘I told him, `My family is very revolutionary, but there are many things I don’t like about the revolution, and I’ve spoken badly of you. I have friends in Miami, and I’m not going to give them up for anything in the world.’ ‘’
Fidel praised her honesty and said there would be no problem as long as she set limits and didn’t publicly discuss ‘‘our things,’’ says Menéndez. ``He told me that by tomorrow he wanted to see me in the house . . . So I went, had lunch, and my life with them began.’‘
In November of 1995 she moved into the Castro family home in the sprawling, heavily guarded compound, known as Punto Cero, in the western Havana neighborhood of Siboney—a compound that few Cubans, and even fewer outsiders, have ever visited.
Three of the sons lived with Fidel and Dalia in the four-bedroom main house, an L-shaped structure made up of two houses built by wealthy Cuban families before the Castro revolution’s 1959 victory. The houses were abandoned by their owners when they flew abroad afterward and then linked when Fidel moved in, according to Cuban defectors who have been there. The two other sons lived in smaller buildings within the compound.
Although the family lived better than most Cubans, Menéndez said, conditions at the house were hardly luxurious.
‘My friends would say, `Oh, you live in a house with a swimming pool, you eat meat every day,’ ‘’ she says. But when she and Alex got married, workers ``built him a room on top of the garage. He’s a big guy, and he barely fit between the bed and wall. That is not luxury.’‘
Alex bought his own car, an old white Pontiac, with money he earned from his job as a computer programmer. But the first time Menéndez saw him undressed, she says, ``he had holes in his underwear. That is not what you expect of a president’s son.’‘
That kind of paradox helps explain Menéndez’s own complicated attitude toward Fidel. She takes issue with some of Fidel’s decisions, but not all: She also criticizes U.S. policy toward Cuba, for example. And overall, she admires Fidel’s work ethic and dedication to his principles.
She recognizes that her nuanced attitude may not be welcome among Cuban exiles in Miami. Nevertheless, she hopes to be heard, and Spanish-language media officials in Miami say they are negotiating to fly Menéndez to Florida to appear on shows.
Menéndez also doubts that Fidel really has the nearly $1 billion fortune that Forbes magazine recently reported.
‘‘What if this all ends?’’ she recalls him saying. ``Nothing of this is mine; it all belongs to the state. What my children will get after I go is what the revolution gives them as thanks for my being president. But I will leave nothing to them.’‘
Menéndez and Alex married in 1997. She wore a white wedding gown given to her by a French friend. Fidel wore his traditional olive green uniform to the reception.
In most ways, life at Punto Cero was simple. Fidel often had breakfast in his pajamas, and he enjoyed the stuffed turkey the cook would prepare for birthdays and other celebrations. One of his great pleasures was playing with his granddaughter Adali, Alex’s child from his first marriage.
He also liked conversations with Menéndez. ‘‘Even when we disagreed, he liked talking, because he could tell that I was being sincere with him,’’ she says.
One argument erupted when Castro learned that Menéndez had left her government office job to work in tourism—where she could earn needed U.S. dollars.
‘I said to him, `Look, I have food every day, a glass of milk every day, because you give it to me. But my family doesn’t have milk. You don’t know what it’s like out there.’ He listened to me, and he said I was right.’‘
That openness from Fidel is one reason that Menéndez still feels affection for the man who ruled Cuba for 47 years until he became ill in July and turned over power to Raúl.
‘He is egotistical. If he didn’t like something, he would pound the table and say, `Coño, what the hell is this?’ But we had a good relationship. He was always affectionate with me.’‘
Menéndez’s respect does not extend to Raúl and his family, who apparently did not live the same relatively austere life that Fidel’s family did. Once, she saw how Raúl’s children lived.
Fidel’s five boys and their wives were in Varadero and went to visit the house where Raúl’s children were staying. Most of the Varadero houses now used by senior Cuban government officials were seized when their owners left the country after 1959.
‘‘It was a splendid house, with a lot of servants. A maid was serving them breakfast,’’ she recalled. ``You couldn’t help but notice that they had a different standard of living. Their father permits it.’‘
Menéndez says the two brothers are not personally close.
‘‘Politically, yes,’’ she says, ``but not as a family. They don’t even get together at the end of the year; they never sit down to share a meal. Raúl’s children hide from Fidel because they don’t want him to see how they live.’‘
DALIA’S PRICEY TASTES
Menéndez saves her harshest criticism, however, for Dalia, Fidel’s companion of 40 years, whom she describes as demanding that her sons and their wives live austerely while she enjoys some luxuries.
‘‘When Fidel was around,’’ says Menéndez, ``Dalia would dress in simple clothes made by a seamstress. But at night, when he would leave, she would put on expensive suits and Chanel perfume.’‘
Although she and Alex, while staying with them on one of Fidel’s fishing boats—he is reported to have several large pleasure crafts at his disposal—once overheard the two having sex, ‘‘they never kissed or hugged’’ in public. And they would argue heatedly. Says Menéndez, ``He would call her a liar.’‘
Menéndez agrees with that assessment of Dalia, who has stayed far out of public view. The first mention of her in The Miami Herald was in 1993—25 years after she gave birth to her first child with Fidel.
``Dalia is very manipulative. She couldn’t be first lady like she wanted; Fidel forced her into a secondary role . . . So she looked for her own world to run, and that world is controlling her kids and their wives.’‘
From the beginning, the relationship was frosty. At their first meeting, at a sailing regatta in Cuba, Dalia refused to take off her sunglasses when she was presented to Menéndez. She commented acerbically on the latter’s youth.
Recalling Dalia’s jealousy, Menéndez describes an occasion when she wore a nice dress for Sunday dinner and Castro complimented her. ‘‘Afterwards,’’ she says, ‘Dalia pulled me aside and said, `I didn’t know you were going to get so dressed up . . . From now on, you have to tell me what you’re going to wear.’ ‘’
But Menéndez says Dalia’s worst manipulation may have come when she told her mother-in-law that she suspected she was pregnant. The next day, when Menéndez went to a clinic, her regular gynecologist had been replaced by another doctor. The new physician gave her some pills, telling her that the medicine—harmless if she was pregnant—would induce menstruation if she wasn’t.
The pills caused her to miscarry. When she went back to the clinic for a checkup, a nurse took Menéndez aside and told her that if she wanted to have children with Alex, she shouldn’t return to that clinic. Menéndez believes that her mother-in-law arranged for the doctor to induce the abortion.
‘Dalia never wanted [her sons’] families to grow,’’ she says.
Although Menéndez says she eventually discovered that Alex was being unfaithful, she places a good deal of the blame for their eventual breakup on Dalia.
Dalia was especially unhappy with her efforts to persuade Alex to meet a daughter from a previous relationship. ‘‘She used all her means to go after me,’’ says Menéndez, ``and things started to add up.’‘
When Dalia prohibited Menéndez from decorating the kitchen in her and Alex’s apartment with tiles because they were ‘‘too luxurious,’’ Menéndez complained bitterly in a phone chat with her aunt. The call was recorded at Dalia’s orders, and the tape given to Fidel.
Dalia used the tape to turn Fidel against Menéndez. ``He said he was very disappointed in me and that he didn’t want to see me for awhile.’‘
Dalia then prohibited Alex and Menéndez from eating meals with the family and from doing their laundry at Punto Cero. She cut Alex’s gasoline allowance and put the two on food rations. For Alex, it proved too much.
‘‘One day, he told me there was too much going on with his family,’’ she said. ‘He drove me to my parents’ house and left me there.’’ When Menéndez tried to retrieve her things from the Castro compound, she was turned away.
Even that didn’t completely end her relationship with Alex. For a while, he spent nights with her at her parent’s home. But eventually she realized the indignity of the situation, and she divorced him in 2000.
Menéndez then tried to leave Cuba but found herself stymied by immigration officials until Alex intervened on her behalf. These days, she lives in a town outside Barcelona, Spain, with her new Spanish husband and their 20-month-old son. Two Cuban exiles once close to the Castro family confirmed Menéndez had been married to Alex.
Today, Menéndez speaks with the determined air of someone who has come forward after a long silence. She recently granted an interview to the Spanish TV program Donde Estás, Corazón?, in part because she knew that her story would garner the most interest before Castro dies and in part because she finally felt free enough to speak.
Although she says she doesn’t fear the consequences of speaking out, she clearly remains anxious about the Cuban government’s long reach. She refuses to conduct interviews by phone, worried both that her lines may be tapped and that she cannot assess the interviewer by voice alone.
Although she occasionally communicates with Alex, her only access to Fidel now is through television. The latest images of the Cuban leader—wearing a jogging suit and looking frail—made her cry.
‘‘I never thought I’d see him looking ridiculous,’’ she says.
She has no reliable information on the ailment that has kept Fidel away from public events since July 26, and she believes that someone needs to tell the truth about his health.
``From what I’ve heard from the family members with whom I’m in contact, he’s still alive. But he owes the Cuban people an explanation. To not tell them what is happening is one more display of his lack of respect.’‘
And while she believes that Fidel did good things for Cuba, that doesn’t prevent her from offering him advice.
``Fidel was always obsessed with the threat of imperialism, and he thought he could do the thinking for 11 million Cubans. But he can’t. He should have listened to the voice of his people.’’