Castro denies wealth, says he's humble revolutionary In rare interview, Cuban criticizes U.S. trade ban, vows to stay if people want


HAVANA -- Rejecting reports that he has amassed a billion-dollar fortune during his years in power, Cuban President Fidel Castro said he hasn't misused a penny of government money, owns no property and will go down in history as a humble revolutionary.

"I'm not after money and glory," Castro told a 32-member delegation from the American Society of Newspaper Editors during the weekend. "I am not married to power. I hate individualism and selfishness."

In a rare, wide-ranging interview lasting more than six hours, Castro criticized the longtime U.S. ban on trade with Cuba, vowed to stay in power as long as the Cuban people want him and taunted his foes in the Cuban exile community.

"They must think that God is bad because God has not eliminated me from the Earth," said Castro, 72.

The interview marked the first time that members from the editors' group have met with Castro in Cuba. The group's last meeting with the Cuban leader took place in the United States on April 17, 1959.

Castro sounded many familiar themes, calling the U.S. trade ban "criminal," defending Cuba's brand of socialism and portraying his country as a defiant little island that has dared to stand up to the most powerful nation in history.

He addressed what he said were many misconceptions Americans have about Cuba:

The Cuban government is not a dictatorship, Castro said. Elections are "free and democratic," he said, but "we have different concepts of democracy."

Cuban law does not allow authorities to jail people merely for "disrespecting" the government, Castro said, but those who plot against the government and carry out what he called "counterrevolutionary" activities, can be punished.

Most people fleeing Cuba are not political refugees, Castro said. Like Mexico, the Dominican Republic and other developing countries, Cuba has produced thousands of "economic refugees," Castro said. He estimated that only 15 percent of those leaving Cuba could be considered political exiles and said very few of them would return to the island if there were a change in government.

Wages in Cuba average about $10 a month, but Castro said they are not as low as they might seem because basic needs such as housing, health care and education are largely paid for by the state.

Asked how long he planned to stay in power, Castro said he would be president as long as the Cuban people want him in office -- and as long as he is physically and mentally fit.

He said Cuba remains a nation at virtual war with the United States and added: "Do you think one has the right to retire in the midst of our struggle?"

But Castro expressed confidence that what he termed the revolution would continue with or without him. He said Cuba has many capable leaders, including his brother, Raul Castro, head of the armed forces; Ricardo Alarcon, president of the National Assembly; and Carlos Lage, the vice president.

The Cuban leader discussed his nation's economy, which nose-dived in the early 1990s with the breakup of the Soviet Union and the end of nearly $6 billion a year in subsidies. To keep the country afloat, Cuban officials rely increasingly on tourism and citizens are now allowed to possess U.S. dollars, which had been illegal.

The emerging mixed economic system has created new inequities as the gap grows between those who earn dollars and those who don't. But Castro said he had no choice but to turn to tourism.

"We need the hard currency," he said.

New four- and five-star hotels are springing up in Havana, even as some of the city's old colonial buildings languish. But Castro said his government is spending on the projects most likely to produce new sources of income. And that new income will go toward housing, medical care and education for all Cubans, he said.

Asked to describe the government's economic strategy, the Cuban leader said: "To struggle, to work, to be more efficient and to do so with our own resources."

Among those resources, he said, are baseball players who are better than the World Series champion New York Yankees. One of those Yankees is pitcher Orlando Hernandez, who escaped Cuba is a raft last year so he could play in the United States.

"We didn't send them," Castro said of Hernandez and other Cubans playing in the U.S. major leagues. "You stole them."

Asked why he would not allow Cubans to join U.S. teams, he replied: "This is done on the basis of patriotism."

Castro lamented his country's tough economic times, but said Cuba has done a lot with scarce resources. The country has 63,000 doctors, he said, more per capita than anywhere in the world. Life expectancy is 76 years, well above that of most developing countries. And education is free and universal.

"I doubt there is any other place where each cent is used more rationally than in Cuba," Castro said.

Lashing out at the U.S. media, Castro cited what he called an DTC inaccurate report in Forbes magazine that contended he has amassed a billion-dollar personal fortune.

"What right do they have to write this slander?" he asked. "What protects the dignity of the people? This is absurd."

Castro said he doesn't need a bank account to discover "the meaning of life. I consider myself a revolutionary. And I hope to die in the trenches -- with honor."

If anyone doubts his selfless nature, he said, consider that he has been given 17,500 gifts and donated all of them to museums and other attractions in Cuba.

Pub Date: 10/26/98

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