The headlines ripped through Little Havana earlier this month: "Fidel Castro has found Jesus." The source of this shocking news: Fidel's Miami-based daughter, Alina Fernandez, who gave an interview to Italian newspaper La Repubblica. The paper also tracked down a Vatican source who said Pope Benedict XVI expects to take confession from Fidel during a trip to Havana next month. Could it be true? Should Saint Pete prepare for a cigar-chomping dictator?
Cálmate los nervios. In an interview with Riptide, Fernandez now denies saying any such thing and notes she hasn't spoken to her father since fleeing the island in 1993. "I've been out of Cuba for 17 years," she says. "How do I know what Fidel is thinking about God?"
So much for that scoop. But it doesn't mean she has nothing to say about Fidel's long-lost faith. As the pope plans his historic trip on March 26, Fernandez says her father has clearly mended fences with the Church and made life much better for Cuba's Catholics -- even if his own beliefs are hazy.
"There's obviously been a reconciliation with the Church," she says. Fernandez is also dismissive of the recent wave of ex-pat Cuban Catholics critical of Fidel's better relationship with the church: "I don't know how people can be critical of that."
Fernandez should know: Religious oppression was one of the main motivations for fleeing her homeland. Born in 1956 to Fidel and Natalia Revuelta Clews, Fernandez grew up a favored member of Fidel's extended family. But when her own daughter decided to become Catholic in the early '90s, Fernandez suddenly saw firsthand the legacy of Fidel's tense relationship with the Church.
Despite a boyhood Jesuit education, Fidel was excommunicated shortly after the revolution for expelling Catholic officials. In the early '90s, Catholics on the island were still regularly persecuted.
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"Things were very harsh at that time. You could expect retaliation from the state any time you left a church," she says.
Fernandez fled to Spain in 1993 and relocated to Miami. She has since become a public critic of the regime with a regular gig on Radio Mambí. She says it's not impossible that Fidel has begun reflecting on his faith as he finally nears death. She just can't claim to know for sure.
"I simply don't know what he's thinking," she says. "It's very easy to be critical of the Church for engaging with Fidel, but I do have to say that it's good for Catholics there."