Both Castro and Fernandez’ mother, a socialite, were married to other people when they fell in love through their exchange of letters while Castro was in jail, according to Fernandez.
She was born out of wedlock and grew up believing her mother’s husband, a doctor who eventually left the country, was her father. But the “mesmerizing” man who she saw making speeches on TV, also visited her house at night.
“In those days he could jump from the TV screen to the living room just like that,” she recalled.
Castro’s visits, she said, made for a “bizarre atmosphere” that made her mother “joyful” and her grandmother angry.
“Only grandma called him the devil, so I was very confused,” she said. “I didn’t know what to think about the man.”
Fernandez was 10 when she learned the nighttime visitor was her father, a revelation that was little surprise to her by then.
But even as the daughter of the country’s most powerful man, life was far from easy and Fernandez spoke of the country’s suffering as families were separated, goods were rationed and freedoms were restricted.
As her family ties became public, people began to approach her with their stories and requests, hoping she could send messages to Castro on their behalf.
“You must be in real desperation to approach a child expecting him to be helpful,” she said.
In 1989, Fernandez joined the dissident movement, publicly defying her father’s policies.
“Revolution becomes a dictatorship when the state owns your personal life and if you try to do something to improve it you are sent to jail,” she said.
In 1993, disguised as a Spanish tourist, she escaped to the U.S. where she lives today.
Fernandez said she has no contact with Castro, and a strained relationship with her mother, whom she calls a “true believer” in his doctrine.
One audience member Tuesday asked if she missed Cuba’s communist system of free health care and other similar government-run programs and she replied such services aren’t really free, because workers are hardly getting paid.
“It’s twisted, the benefits you can see, which is universal health and universal education… has a very dark story on the bottom,” she said. “It costs a lot of sacrifice and you don’t speak about it.”