In the wee hours of Dec. 10, the recently reelected Venezuelan president, Hugo Chávez, boarded his private jet for Havana to undergo a fourth round of surgery in his battle against cancer.
Surrounded by his inner circle, the 58-year-old populist, donning a blue and white tracksuit, stood at the top of the stairs of his plane, embraced his closest advisers, then punched the air with his fist and shouted, “¡Hasta la vida siempre!” (“Onward into life always!”)
One day earlier Chávez conceded what many had surmised: that his cancer had returned. In June 2011 he had surgery in Havana to remove “a baseball-size tumor from his pelvis,” but refused to disclose any other details.
From the start, the question has been why Chávez chose surgery and treatment in Cuba over Venezuela, which boasts many renowned cancer specialists. The deciding factor, it seems, was not superior medical care, but rather the guarantee of ironclad secrecy under the direct supervision of Chávez’s mentor and closest friend, Fidel Castro. In Cuba, the health and all personal details about the Maximum Leader have long been treated as state secrets.
Castro is nothing if not a master strategist—fully aware that if the Venezuelan leader succumbs to illness, the peril to Cuba could be its gravest challenge since the loss of its patron after the Soviet Union fell in 1991. For starters, Chávez provides Cuba with an astounding 115,000 barrels of oil each day—gratis.
But Castro’s interest in Chávez’s health goes far beyond the political. Following Castro’s own precipitous health calamities that led to his formal retirement, Chávez, who is almost 30 years Castro’s junior and refers to him as mi padre, has been a frequent presence at his bedside. “Here with Fidel, celebrating his 85th birthday! Viva Fidel!” Chávez tweeted irrepressibly in August 2011.
The relationship between Castro and Chávez is arguably the most fascinating political alliance in the Americas. In 1994 Chávez flew to Havana to meet his political hero, who awaited him on the airport tarmac. It was the beginning of a remarkable relationship between the two men and two countries that Chávez has dubbed “Venecuba.”
Since then the two iconic leaders have celebrated several of their birthdays together. For his 75th in 2001, Castro trooped to Caracas for a bash hosted by Chávez followed by a cruise through Venezuela’s rainforests. It was a visit, said Chávez, that allowed “us an opportunity to let him know how much we love him.”
And so it is that the two most infamous strongmen of Latin America, whose symbiosis has enabled their stranglehold on power for so many years, now find themselves being lifelines for one another as they battle death. What remains to be seen is which one—the Venezuelan oil sultan or the Cuban guerrilla revolutionary—will be the first to be summoned by the Grim Reaper.
This past summer, a lifelong Fidelista and former senior minister in the Cuban government was shooting the breeze with a well-known writer at the latter’s Havana apartment. After a few drinks, the normally cautious former official surprised his host. Lowering his voice, he said, “No one expects Fidel to make it to December.” And then with a roll of the eyes and a dry laugh, he added, “So of course, he’ll make it to March!”
Confounding the actuarial tables and disappointing his enemies has long been Castro’s favored sport. In October he triumphed once again, when the rumor mill reached an incendiary pitch after a Venezuelan reporter and a doctor in Florida both declared that Castro was either in a vegetative state or dead.
Cuba’s powers that be decreed that something had to be done. It was decided that Castro’s son Alex, a photographer and bon vivant of Havana’s nightlife, would snap a few pictures. The photographs, showing an elderly Castro in a plaid shirt and straw sombrero supporting himself on a cane, swiftly stilled the obituary presses. So did Castro’s retort that he did not “even remember what a headache is.” It was a classic Castro one-two punch, inspiring variants on the headline “Fidel Not Dead—Yet Again.”
But the chattering ruling class of Havana, known as the nomenklatura, was far from convinced that the man who ruled their island since 1959 would be around much longer. Exhibit A, they pointed out, was the fact the recent photos were shot by Fidel’s son—not an independent news photographer—and they showed a decidedly aged and frail Castro. Moreover, Castro has not been seen in public for six months—not since he made a surprise visit to Pope Benedict at the Vatican’s Embassy in March. Observers at that meeting described Castro as visibly wobbly when he entered the building, requiring assistance from aides to help him walk and sit down.
Perhaps most telling, the famously loquacious Cuban has not published one of his columns of “Reflections” since June, and his last ones were about as brief as one of Chávez’s tweets. With the release of his son’s photographs came the announcement that Castro’s column would run no longer. It was official: the master stemwinder, who delivered a speech for 7 hours and 10 minutes in 1986, would no longer be speaking or writing publicly.
One close friend of Castro and his family, who requested anonymity for fear of government reprisal, recently visited Castro’s compound in Siboney, a posh western suburb of Havana. “Fidel’s memory is not so good,” the source confided to a friend after the visit. “He gets confused as to who is who sometimes; his memory is in and out, so he needs help because of it.”
An official in the Cuban Ministry of Health—conversant with the details of Castro’s condition—speculates that the diminishment of Castro’s once prodigious and flawless memory is due to the quantity of anesthesia administered to him over the last six years during numerous surgeries.
In 2006 Castro underwent extensive emergency surgery for acute diverticulitis, which can cause painful infected pouches in the intestines. Typically a patient with chronic diverticulitis such as Castro’s would have a colostomy, requiring the use of an external bag for a period of time. Castro, however, insisted on a procedure in which the colon was reconnected at the same time in one surgery—despite warnings of the numerous risks of such a surgical shortcut. “No one could tell him no,” said a trusted confidante of Castro’s. “He would not listen to anyone, because he could not bear the idea of it,” having to wear a colostomy bag.
The operation failed, and for the next week Castro hovered between life and death. An emergency second surgery also went badly when the surgeons saw that Castro’s gallbladder and other viscera had become septic and gangrenous. Ultimately the doctors were forced to perform a lifesaving colostomy anyway.
When he awoke after the surgery and learned what had happened, “Fidel cried,” said a doctor who was present in the hospital. “He was devastated.”
For the next five months, Castro was fed intravenously, and he lost nearly 50 pounds. Solid food was reintroduced into Castro’s diet by the end of 2006, and he slowly began to gain weight and show signs of improvement. As he had done many times before, Castro walked back from the grave, albeit with assistance.
Since then Castro has made a physical recovery that can only be described as miraculous. By 2007 he was seen in photographs again and making the occasional public appearance, having abandoned his verdes olivas for blousy tracksuits or a windbreaker, which neatly concealed the colostomy bag.
Many octogenarians, having eked out such a slippery recovery, would have contented themselves with survival. Not Castro. He decided to go back under the knife once more to reconnect his intestines.
“They reversed it,” said the source in the Ministry of Health, who spoke with one of Castro’s surgeons. “La bolsa [the bag] is no more,” said the doctor. “It was very important to him.”
But Castro is a shadow of his once indomitable self. His survival depends upon vigilant medical attention and a rigorously disciplined diet. Attending to these 24/7 duties is a woman who previously lived off stage and was unknown even to many Cubans. But these days, Castro’s spouse, Dalia Soto del Valle, occupies a powerful position: doing for Fidel what he can no longer do for himself.
Filmmaker and writer Saul Landau recalls a visit to Castro’s home two years ago with actor Danny Glover and the singer Harry Belafonte. The two had been working on a film, Will the Real Terrorist Please Stand Up. It is a project dear to the heart of Castro, about the so-called Cuban Five, who were convicted of spying in the U.S.
“You have exactly three hours with Fidel,” Soto del Valle politely informed the visiting Americans when they arrived. Exactly three hours later, she reappeared and with a tight smile raised her hand. Though Fidel was in midsentence, she interrupted. “That’s it,” she said, as her husband turned and looked toward her, then stopped speaking.
“She told him the interview was over, and he obeyed her,” Landau says, “which is miraculous!”
No one—absolutely no one—in the last half century has ever told Fidel Castro what to do or how long he could speak. Most especially a woman—even one who is the mother of five of his dozen children.
A former Cuban minister recalled meetings from 45 years ago with Castro and top officials in the very house where he lives today. Soto del Valle, who was then young, blonde, and beautiful, was invariably present, but, said the official, she was never introduced. “Everyone knew she was la mujer de Fidel, but she was never acknowledged as such by him. If it came up, he would introduce her as compañera [comrade] Dalia.”
Indeed, Castro did not even marry Soto de Valle until years after she had borne him five sons. It was not until 2003 that the Cuban media even acknowledged her—although not as the wife of the Cuban leader. There would be no official first lady of Cuba. While Castro’s living arrangements have puzzled many, he was following a family tradition of sorts. His own father, Ángel, a self-made ranching tycoon, only deigned to marry the mother of seven of his children many years after the brood had grown up. And like his father, Castro often had multiple liaisons, with whom he fathered at least another five children (in addition to his son Fidelito from his first marriage).
Today, however, having stoically withstood decades of philandering, Soto de Valle savors unquestionable power. Castro’s life is literally in her hands. “She has the keys to the kingdom now,” says a family insider.
No one visits her husband without her knowledge. And she is entirely hands-on with his daily health regimen. “They are still eating macrobiotic,” says one knowledgeable source, referring to the ascetic diet Castro adopted in the late ’90s as a treatment for his diverticulitis. “Dalia is doing the diet with him as well.” The couple has eliminated sugar, coffee, and alcohol—the very staples of a normal Cuban diet. Castro also takes Chinese herbs prepared by China’s foremost medical herbalist; the herbal concoctions are sent via diplomatic pouch to the Chinese Embassy in Havana, the source says.
“He said he eats very carefully, which he said is vital,” recalls Landau, the filmmaker. “He eats a lot of fruits and vegetables. And he’s never gotten over that fall he took.” In 2004 Castro had a famous tumble, memorialized by an intrepid photographer who captured the moment that the Cuban strongman tripped and flew forward. Landing face down on the pavement, Castro splintered his kneecap and broke his arm. Neither limb has ever fully mended, leaving him hobbling and unable to raise his right arm.
The filmmakers observed Castro to be polite with family members—a son and a flock of grandchildren flitted about the house, but there were no overt displays of affection. In this regard, he is the polar opposite of his younger brother, Raúl, who is emotional, sentimental—even childlike with family.
“He kept saying he’s retired,” says Landau, “and that’s the way it looked.” All around the house were piles of books, and on the coffee table was Barack Obama’s book The Audacity of Hope, with pages of text underlined and oodles of marginalia. “He was quite impressed with Obama,” says Landau. As Castro bid his visitors farewell, he quipped, “Now you can say that you’ve been talking to the dead.”
In 1994 during an interview with the then-67-year-old Castro for Vanity Fair magazine, I asked him if he ever would retire. He paused, then shot back, “Retire?! Revolutionaries do not retire—any more than writers!”
But should he ever, he added, “the first thing I would do when I am put out to pasture is write a book, record my experiences,” he said. Which is exactly what he did in 2007.
Toward the end of our three-hour talk, I asked Castro a hypothetical: what happens to Cuba if an unforeseen accident or illness should take him out?
“Candidly, I don’t really think anything would happen,” he said without hesitation. “The government would very quickly adapt to that situation. We have all the political and legal mechanisms in place. The life of the country wouldn’t be halted for even a minute.”
And so it has been. The transition of power to Fidel’s brother Raúl, head of the Cuban Armed Forces since 1959, has been remarkably seamless. True, for the first four years, Castro morphed from Commander in Chief to Meddler in Chief and hobbled many of Raúl’s much-desired economic reforms.
But in the last year, as his memory has receded and his physical infirmities have quickened, Fidel Castro has finally relinquished the reins on the tropical island he made his own a half-century ago.
“What astonishes everyone has been the smoothness of the transition,” says Cuban-American writer Achy Obejas, a frequent visitor to her homeland. “There is no sense of panic, only a sense of inevitability that Fidel will die soon. And everyone knows that they already have prepared for his funeral in minute detail.” Castro, master micromanager of all things, has left nothing to chance.
Venezuela’s ailing leader has learned a thing or two from his mentor’s battle with mortality. The fact that Hugo Chávez has now appointed a successor—Vice President Nicolás Maduro—suggests that his situation is grave, and he will remain in treatment for some time in Havana. The National Assembly rubber-stamped Chávez’s request for an indefinite absence for his medical emergency, and officials are signaling that it is unlikely that he will be able to return to Caracas for his swearing-in ceremony on Jan. 10.
Indeed, government officials conceded that there were complications and internal bleeding during Chávez’s six-hour surgery last Tuesday. “It was a complex, difficult, delicate operation,” said Maduro, who visited Chávez in the hospital. “The postoperative process is also going to be a complex and hard process.” While calling his mentor “invincible,” he added that Chávez “is fighting a battle for his life.”
However challenging his prognosis, Chávez has no doubt found inspiration in Castro’s uncanny talents at cheating death: when it comes to the subject of Castro’s demise, the credo among weary Cuban exiles in Miami’s Little Havana has long been “immortal until proven otherwise.”
And even death may not be enough to silence Fidel Castro. “Our enemies should not delude themselves,” he told his last biographer. “I die tomorrow and my influence may actually increase,” he suggested. And then he spun the rosiest of posthumous scenarios. “I may be carried around like El Cid—even after he was dead, his men carried him around on his horse, winning battles.”
Or so he hopes.