Juanita Castro, sister of Fidel and fervent anti-communist who informed for the CIA and fled Cuba – obituary

Juanita Castro is helped on to the back of a van as she prepares to speak to a cheering crowd against her brother, Fidel Castro, outside the Cuban Mission in New York, late 1970s
Juanita Castro is helped on to the back of a van as she prepares to speak to a cheering crowd against her brother, Fidel Castro, outside the Cuban Mission in New York, late 1970s - Roy Morsch/NY Daily News Archive via Getty

Juanita Castro, who has died aged 90, was the younger sister of Fidel and Raúl Castro; but while they established Cuba’s communist regime, she defected in the early 1960s and became a CIA informant, smuggling documents out of the country and transmitting messages via a clandestine radio.

It was in late June 1964 that Juanita Castro, then 31, called a press conference in Mexico City and, teary-eyed, declared that she could no longer remain indifferent to what was happening in Cuba: “My brothers Fidel and Raúl have made it an enormous prison surrounded by water. The people are nailed to a cross of torment imposed by international communism.” She had left Havana 10 days earlier, supposedly on a short visit to see her sister Emma.

It is unlikely that this ruse fooled anyone. Rumours about her opposition to the regime had been rife, and she was suspected of facilitating the escape of more than 200 government critics. When she decided to flee even her chauffeur remarked on her hardly inconspicuous luggage of 11 – some say 21 – bags. Most likely it was Raúl, with whom she had always been close, who turned a blind eye to her subterfuge, and assisted in securing her a visa.

For by 1963 Juanita and Fidel Castro had severed ties. Though he was loath to arrest her, Fidel clearly did not anticipate the lengths that Juanita would go to in her anti-communist mission, during which she denounced her brothers as despots on the radio.

“The incident for me is personally very bitter,” Fidel told reporters, ordering the press never to bring up the matter again. Juanita’s defection severely tarnished the regime’s image in Latin America, where families are traditionally seen as tight-knit and remain, at least in public, fiercely loyal.

Speaking at a rally at the Tokyo Convention of the World Anti-Communist League in 1970
Speaking at a rally at the Tokyo Convention of the World Anti-Communist League in 1970 - Bettmann

Juanita had not, however, always been opposed to the revolutionary cause. In 1958 she had even travelled to America to solicit funds in a bid to oust the dictator Fulgencio Batista. When her brothers’ revolution triumphed the following year, she went to the countryside to instal health clinics and manage social programmes.

But as executions of opponents became commonplace, the media was censored and anti-religious measures were put in place, she grew disillusioned. The imposition of “agrarian reform” on the Castro family estates proved the last straw.

When Fidel decided to further expropriate the land, Juanita set about selling the cattle. Fidel flew into a rage and denounced her as a “counter-revolutionary worm”.

For her part, she never believed in Fidel’s “radical conversion” to Marxism-Leninism, painting a picture of a man driven far more by power than by concern for the lives of the Cuban peasants. “Nobody thought for a second that he was going to be a communist,” she said.

She was always more forgiving of Raúl, who continued to act as her protector despite her political views. Tensions within the Castro family are captured in Andy Warhol’s 1965 film, The Life of Juanita Castro, based on a Life article from the previous year.

In this farcical set-up Juanita, Fidel, Raúl and revolutionary cohorts (all played by female actresses) sit on a stage as they are fed lines by the screenwriter Ronald Tavel.

During the improvisations Juanita, who sits in a queenly chair fanning herself, delivers impassioned speeches that mock the revolutionaries’ machismo and flawed totalitarian ideals. As for Che Guevara: “I would let him know that he was meddling in a place where he didn’t belong.”

Juana de la Caridad Castro Ruz was born in Birán, Cuba, on May 6 1933, the fifth of seven children of Angel Castro and his cook, Lina Ruz, who in 1943 would become his second wife. Angel had gone to Cuba as a conscript to fight for Spain during the 1895-98 War of Independence.

After selling railroad ties to the United Fruit Company, he moved into sugar cane, expanded into cattle, opened a general store, and through various occasionally underhand deals became one of the largest landowners in the Holguín province. In spite of Angel’s infidelities, the couple remained inseparable, and Juanita had, for the most part, a happy childhood.

Vice-president General Raul Castro and his brother President Fidel Castro at the world festival of youth and students, Havana, 1978
Vice-president General Raul Castro and his brother President Fidel Castro at the world festival of youth and students, Havana, 1978 - PRENSA LATINA/AFP via Getty Images

Ever devoted to her parents, in 1998 Juanita Castro filed a libel suit against her niece, Alina Fernández, over passages about Angel and Lina in her autobiography, Castro’s Daughter: An Exile’s Memoir of Cuba.

“People who were eating off Fidel’s plate yesterday come here and want money and power, so they say whatever they want, even if it’s not true. Part of my family were responsible for a lot of suffering in Cuba – you can’t change that,” she said. “But nobody has the right to offend Fidel’s family. Insult Fidel – there’s plenty to say.”

For decades Juanita was suspected of having been recruited by the CIA. In 2009 the publication of her memoir, Fidel and Raúl: My Brothers: The Secret History, confirmed that she was indeed a CIA informer who went by the codename Donna.

It turned out that before she left Havana, where her home had become a refuge for opponents of the regime, she had been asked by the Brazilian ambassador, Virginia Leitão da Cunha, to meet a CIA agent, Tony Sforza.

The rendezvous was arranged for Mexico City in 1961. There she agreed to become “Donna”, learning to conceal documents in cans of food, and set up a code system using a clandestine radio and two tunes – Marchetti’s Fascination Waltz and the opening of Madame Butterfly.

As Juanita did not hold a government post it was unlikely that she would have been privy to official secrets, relying instead on anecdotes Fidel shared with his “bosom pals”. She also specified that she would not be involved in any violent attacks on her family. But the recruitment of a mole at the heart of the Americas’ communist stronghold was a rare Cold War success for the CIA, which is thought to have drawn up hundreds of assassination attempts on Fidel.

After her mother’s death, Juanita’s fate became increasingly uncertain and exile seemed the only plausible way out. From 1964 she made Miami her home and remained there for the rest of her life.

Juanita Castro at her chemist’s shop in Miami in 2006, a year before she retired
Juanita Castro at her chemist’s shop in ‘Little Havana’ in 2006, a year before she retired - Eliza Gutierrez/Palm Beach Post/Alamy

Initially she continued working for the CIA, reporting on Latin American political hot spots throughout the Sixties. She was seen as a critical player in determining the outcome of Chile’s 1964 election, broadcasting messages to the country about the ills of communism.

American policy on Cuba shifted radically in the Nixon era, however, as it became apparent that the underground fight against Castro was having a negative impact on US-Soviet relations. The CIA asked Juanita to start issuing statements that communism was no longer a threat in Latin America. She felt betrayed and, refusing to compromise, cut ties with the agency.

Having always refused compensation for her intelligence services, she had little disposable income. To make a living she opened a pharmacy, Mini Price, in Little Havana, with a $5,000 loan from a friend. She worked there until 2007.

Juanita continued to support the new waves of Cuban exiles who arrived in Miami in the 1970s and 1980s. She provided free medical supplies to priests who looked after the community, and donated a house to the International Rescue Committee for refugees.

Though she worked a six-day week, she got much pleasure out of spending time in the garden of her small home and the flowers she grew there. When time allowed, she would go fishing and take long walks on Sanibel Island, on Florida’s west coast. Although she remained a quiet figure in Miami, shunning the spotlight of the more vociferous anti-Castro organisations, she was a well-respected member of the Cuban community.

She remained estranged from Fidel and Raúl, though she kept close ties with her other siblings, especially Emma. Her sister Angela died in 2012 and her brother Ramón in 2016.

When Fidel died in November that year, Juanita Castro announced from her home in Miami, where the Cuban expat community was celebrating, that she would not be attending his funeral: “I want to clarify that I have never returned to [Cuba], nor do I have plans to do so…

“I’ve been in exile in Miami for 51 years. Like all the Cubans who left to find a space to fight for the freedom of their country, I have never changed my position, even though I had to pay a high price for the pain and isolation.”

Carmita and Hilda Morgade and Ana Ely Esteva, friends whose escape to Miami she had facilitated, were her closest companions. She called them the “sisters that life gave me”.

Juanita Castro, born May 6 1933, died December 4 2023

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