Ramon Castro, Cuban leader's older brother, dies at age 91

HAVANA -- Ramon Castro, a lifelong rancher and farmer who bore a strong physical resemblance to younger brother Fidel Castro, has died, Cuban state media announced Tuesday.

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He was 91.

Widely known by his nickname "Mongo," the white-bearded Ramon Castro preferred tending crops and livestock to the revolutionary political life embraced by his younger siblings Fidel and Raul, who replaced Fidel as Cuba's president in February 2008.

Two years older than Fidel, Ramon was long used to getting double-takes from people who insisted he looked just like his famous brother. At times, Ramon was said to reply that because he was older, Fidel actually looked like him.

Ramon, Fidel and Raul were the second, third and fourth children of Angel Castro, a Spanish-born rancher, and his second wife, Lina Ruz. Angel Castro also had two other children from a previous marriage.

The three brothers attended Roman Catholic schools in eastern Cuba, where their teachers complained about their pranks and trouble making, prompting Angel to pull them out of classes for some time.

Once grown, Fidel and Raul headed off to Havana for studies, then the business of launching a revolution against dictator Fulgencio Batista, who seized power in a 1952 coup.

But Ramon Castro was content to remain in the village of Biran in eastern Cuba, where he helped his father with the family business.

Nevertheless, Ramon remained in contact with his siblings. He wrote letters to Fidel in prison when he and Raul and other followers were arrested after their unsuccessful 1953 attack on a military barracks that launched their armed struggle. Sometimes along with the correspondence, Ramon sent along a ham or a box of cigars.

According to letters from that period, Fidel asked Ramon to assure their parents that prison was not "a horrible and shameful idea. ... When one's motives are lofty and great, then it is an honourable place."

After Fidel and his followers established their rebel stronghold in Cuba's eastern mountains, there was at least one recorded instance of Fidel visiting the family ranch, where he feasted on a turkey that Ramon had kept frozen for months in hopes of such a visit.

Following the 1959 triumph of the Cuban revolution and Fidel's subsequent rise to power, Ramon often worked as a consultant for the government ministries of agriculture and sugar. In the early 1960s, he oversaw sugar production in eastern Cuba, where he helped increase output.

Ramon founded several state companies, including ones that handled the transportation of sugar cane and the production of oranges. He also was involved in agricultural research.

Although he wielded little government power, Ramon nevertheless was a founding member of the Communist Party of Cuba and served as a deputy in the country's parliament, the National Assembly.

Little was known about his private life except that he was born on Oct. 14, 1924, had been married and had at least two sons, Ramon Omar Castro and Angel Castro.

Being the president's brother often brought him into contact with high-profile visitors, including American film director Oliver Stone, who met with both Fidel and Ramon during a 2002 visit.

More recently, Ramon befriended rancher John Parke Wright, of J.P. Wright & Co. of Florida, during the American's recent visits to negotiate sales of U.S. livestock to the communist government. Wearing big cowboy hats, the pair rode horses and inspected cattle at the Nina Bonita ranch in the western province of Pinar del Rio.

Although Fidel quit smoking cigars in 1986, Ramon maintained the habit that he picked up from his father when he was just 12.

"Is it true that he never smoked again?" Ramon asked during a 2002 international cigar festival about his younger brother's former love of the island's world-famous tobacco. "As for me, I haven't given it up."

Ramon liked to boast about his family's longevity. Their father lived until age 82, and there reportedly was at least one aunt who lived past 100.

"It seems that we have a good genetic mix," Ramon said in late 2004, expressing confidence that Fidel would quickly recover after a fall, which in fact he did.

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Associated Press writer Andrea Rodriguez reported this story in Havana and AP writer Paul Haven reported from Mexico City.



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