Four decades of watching the back of Cuba's 'El Jefe'
HAVANA, Cuba (AP) -- Security for many world leaders has gradually
tightened over the decades, reaching a new intensity illustrated by the
clampdown around U.S. President George W. Bush after the September
11 terror attacks.
But it's nothing new for this island nation, where security men have blanketed
President Fidel Castro almost since the revolutionary leader took power in 1959.
Working under the slogan "Loyalty, Watchfulness and Dedication," the
protection unit must provide close security for a man who has been the target of the
CIA and of anti-communist Cuban exiles. And they must do it for an unpredictable
man who often works all night and is prone to changing plans at a moment's notice.
They are intensely secretive about their work, but privately some portray
security team much like a brotherhood -- men tied together by pride and their years
together. Some have protected Castro for decades.
After September 11, when Bush visited the ruins of the World Trade Center,
plane was accompanied by military fighter jets. In New York, his military doctor
rode next to him in an armored SUV. His travel plans are now announced much
closer to the time of departure, and details are few.
Such precautions have long been the norm in Cuba.
Castro's foreign trips often aren't announced until the day he leaves.
they aren't reported until after he's back.
Journalists covering the communist leader's public appearances, both here
abroad, undergo intense security checks.
All photographers, TV cameramen and reporters must arrive one to two hours
before the event and leave everything they carry at a designated room. Security
men and a pair of bomb-sniffing dogs then check everything behind closed doors:
cameras, lenses, bags, purses, cellular telephones, tape recorders.
Such checks are aimed at preventing the kind of attack that killed the
of the Afghan northern alliance, Ahmed Shah Massood. Two suicide assassins
posing as journalists exploded a bomb that may have been hidden in a TV camera
while interviewing him.
Strict security procedures, along with the intense loyalty of his guards,
Castro alive despite more than 600 assassination plots aimed at him over the
Few details are known about the security detail's operations. Among the
bodyguard's primary job is to bring Castro a glass of water at whatever podium he
may be speaking, anywhere in world. A chef tastes each dish prepared for Castro
outside his secure headquarters, such as at the homes of foreign ambassadors.
Cubans got a glimpse at some of Castro's bodyguards in September thanks
unusual supplement published by the Communist Youth newspaper Juventud
Rebelde to mark the presidential security team's 40th anniversary.
But in reporting on interviews with five of the guards, the paper offered
on procedures. It didn't say how many members are in the security team, discuss
where or how the men are trained, or say if any guards had died in the line of duty.
What was clear was the loyalty and affection the men feel for the man they
Comandante en Jefe" -- the commander in chief -- or simp ly "El Jefe."
"He is the chief of his personal security," the newspaper quoted one bodyguard
saying. "We just carry out the orders."
The bodyguards appear to live modestly like most Cubans. For them, the
appears to lie in their service.
"One feels big, feels like a man who not even bullets could harm when close
Comandante,"' Francisco Salgado, 39, was quoted as saying.
"Sometimes, you get tired and keep working for days, even without sleep.
moment 'El Comandante' arrives, you put aside your weariness and feel like the
most important man in the world," said Salgado, who has guarded the president for
nearly 20 years.
Some bodyguards dress in olive green uniforms like Castro, but most wear
immaculate white tropical shirts known as guayaberas. Several are as tall as
professional basketball players.
The public got a chance to see the bodyguard go into action last June 23
Castro suffered a brief fainting spell during a televised speech.
Guards swooped to Castro's aid when he slumped over the podium. Some were
seen supporting the president, but most of the drama was hidden by other
bodyguards who quickly opened expandable shields that pack into briefcases.
Although the security team rarely shows its weapons, several bodyguards,
noticeably upset, pulled out handguns.
The security men share with Castro a life some describe privately as "disciplined
unpredictability" -- long nights, last-minute decisions, weeks of long days without a
They also share the president's discretion about his personal life. Very
can identify Castro's current wife, reportedly a woman named Dalia Soto del Valle
with whom he is said to have five sons, in addition to at least three other children
from earlier relationships.
Despite the unit's esprit, not everyone is 100 percent loyal.
Security man Lazaro Betancourt Morin defected in April 1999 seeking political
asylum at the U.S. Embassy in the Dominican Republic while Castro attended a
summit there. He later told reporters he no longer believed in the Cuban
Betancourt said about 200 bodyguards and a medical team accompany Castro
trips abroad. He also said Castro has standing orders for his men to kill anyone who
tries to assassinate or even detain him.
Yet, even defection seems incapable of erasing the deeply ingrained loyalty
presidential guards. Betancourt has never publicly revealed any details about how
the security team works.
Copyright 2002 The Associated Press.