Why Fidel Castro burns his underpants, by aide who defected

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The Independent US

Such are the latest details on the world's longest surviving head of state and government, as provided by one of his former personal assistants, Delphin Fernandez. The picture that emerges is of a man obsessed with his health, his security and with personal details of foreign businessmen planning to invest in Cuba.

Mr Fernandez is perhaps a biased witness, who makes a living in Miami from a TV show where he dishes the dirt on Fidel and his brother and probable successor Raul. "Cuba has a death sentence against me for high treason," he told the Miami Herald this week.

But former specialists from the CIA - which for decades has been vainly trying to get rid of Castro, by means that include coups, poison and exploding cigars - say his allegations are highly credible.

In his years at the Cuban leader's side, Mr Fernandez was employed by Havana's counter intelligence service to look after the family and keep a close eye on their foreign investment contacts. Disillusioned, he defected in 1999 during a trip to Europe where he had been sent to pick up a Rottweiler dog in Germany for Fidel. He now describes the regime as "a vast lie." Cuba's people "have been enslaved as cheap labour for foreign businessmen."

But it is the details offered by Mr Fernandez, rather than his political denunciations, that are fascinating. He was told, for instance, by the President's chief bodyguard, that Castro has his old underwear incinerated so they cannot be laundered with deadly chemicals to assassinate him. On another occasion, he was despatched across the Atlantic to bring back a $2,500 consignment of 'pata negra' ham, considered Spain's finest.

One way and another, President Castro seems somewhat quirkier and harder to please than one of his current erstwhile nemeses, US vice-President Dick Cheney. As Mr Fernandez was recounting his experiences, a memo leaked in Washington has described Mr Cheney's requirements for hotel over-nights when travelling in the US.

They are in fact pretty modest: mineral water in the cooler, the room thermostat set to a cosy 68 degrees fahrenheit, all lights on when he arrives and the TV pre-set to the reliably sympathetic Fox News channel.

There are some similarities. Like Mr Cheney here, the Cuban president travels around Havana in an imposing, heavily protected motorcade, in his case headed by three almost identical black Mercedes. But Fidel and his brother (and assumed successor) Raul, have no less than 300 cars for themselves, their families and bodyguards. Mr Cheney, as far as is known, does not shhare this indulgence.

According to Mr Fernandez, Raul - five years Fidel's junior - is the more businesslike of the two. "Raul likes the money -- he has a transition plan. Fidel doesn't. I think Raúl would want to lead an economic transformation, and ultimately find a way to retire peacefully."

Meanwhile the veteran Communist is now the longest serving ruler of any country. Once a decent baseball pitcher, Mr Castro was narrowly deprived of his ambition of winning the sport's inaugural world championship earlier this month, when Cuba lost in the final to Japan.

But he is still cocking a snook across the Florida Straits at the US which has been trying to topple him ever since he took power in 1959, and still defying reports of his imminent demise. In his more ambitious moments, he must be quietly savouring the prospect off seeing off a 10th US Presidency when George W. Bush and Dick Cheney step down in January 2009.