by Juan Reinaldo Sanchez
To free himself from all control, Fidel had long ago created, in the 1960s, the notorious reserva del Comandante, a private account made up of special funds siphoned off from national economic activity. Designed for the exclusive use of the Comandante, it escaped all checks and was a virtually sacred and intocable (untouchable) resource that Fidel used as he saw fit. Fidel explained that the needs of the Revolution, that is to say the threat of imperialist aggression, made this unorthodox means of financial management necessary.
In reality, the reserve served the private interests of Fidel Castro as much as the public ones. It was the pocket money that allowed him to live like a prince without ever thinking of the cost. It also permitted him to behave like a great feudal overlord when he went to the countryside to “his” lands, across “his” island. Fidel could dip into his coffers to build a dispensary, a school, or a road, or to assign cars to a certain municipality (the reserva del Comadante also included a fleet of vehicles) without going through a ministry or any organization. All the benefactor had to do was turn to his aide-de-camp and tell him an amount for a certain project to become reality. Then for Fidel to immediately have the air of a fairy godfather or a man of the people.
However, the relationship he had with money was not that of nouveaux riches like the Italian Silvio Berlusconi or the former Argentinian president Carlos Menem, who were so enamored of luxury, consumption, and instant gratification.
“Don’t worry, Sánchez, the family’s future is assured.”
True, the austere Fidel Castro did not neglect his own comfort, possessing as he did (albeit secretly) a thirty-some-yard yacht, for example. But he did not feel the need to replace it with the latest, flashier model. For him, wealth was above all an instrument of power, political survival, and personal protection. In this regard, knowing his caution-loving character and his mentality of an old Spanish peasant, it is unthinkable that he would not have made arrangements to protect his back —as do all dictators— in the eventuality that he and his family were forced to flee Cuba and settle abroad, for example in Galicia (Spain) on his father’s native land. Moreover, one day his wife Dalia said to me, in passing: “No te preocupes, Sánchez, el futuro de la familia está asegurado.” (“Don’t worry, Sánchez, the family’s future is assured.”)
Considered an asset of the Revolution, the reserva del Comandante was not held by those in power to be something taboo; it was mentioned openly and directly in front of or by Fidel. It was not a state secret unlike the actual size of the reserva del Comandante. Since its creation in the 1960s, it was constantly replenished as the Comandante drew from it.
What fed the reserva del Comandante?
When Cuba was dependent on the subsidies from the USSR, one often heard Fidel telling Chomy, his private secretary, to take a sum of x million dollars (since the currency of Fidel’s account was the dollar) from those funds to put into the reserva del Comandante. In the same way, the Líder Máximo could do what he wanted with Soviet gas— give some to Nicaragua or sell some on the black market to generate cash. When Hugo Chávez agreed to sell Venezuelan black gold to Cuba at a discount, I am certain that these discretionary kinds of arrangements continued.
Various sources fed this special fund, starting with the companies placed under the guardianship of the Council of State ( under Fidel’s leadership), as indicated in Forbes magazine in 2006. Among these were the Corporación Cimex (banks, property construction, car rental, and so on), Cubalese (wound up in 2009, this company supplied foreign embassies and companies with services such as the “rental” of Cuban staff or accommodations), or else the Palacio de Convenciones, created in 1979 to house the sixth summit of the Non-Aligned Movement and headed by the loyal Abraham Maciques.
A million dollars in a bag
One day in the mid-1980s, when the latter was welcoming Fidel to the convention center, I saw him give us an overnight bag filled with a million dollars in cash. As always, it was the aide-de-camp Pepín Naranjo who was assigned to carry the booty and allocate it to the reserva del Comandante. Another day, also in the mid-1980s, it was the Minister of the Interior José Abrantes who came into Fidel’s office with a suitcase full of bills, uttering the sacred phrase, “Commander, this is for the Revolution!” Fidel simply replied, “Very good,” and turned to Pepín to tell him to put it in the reserva del Comandante.
I know that the director of the national bank, Héctor Rodríguez Llompart, was Fidel’s “financial adviser,” but I do not know what financial channels were involved or whether foreign bank accounts existed (in my view, they did). One thing is sure, however: Fidel never lacked cash, as demonstrated by my experience in Harare, for example, when I was given a suitcase with $250,000 in cash to prepare for the arrival of the Cuban head of state.
Lieutenant Colonel Juan Reinaldo Sanchez was Fidel Castro’s personal bodyguard for 17 years before being imprisoned in 1994 for the “crime” of wanting to retire early. He left Cuba in 2008 after ten unsuccessful bids to escape. He is the author of The Double Life of Fidel Castro with Axel Gyldén, star French reporter at L’Express.