Following the ashes of Fidel Castro

In the Hero City of the Revolution, on the day of the dictator Castro’s funeral, Allen Abel finds Cubans yearning for freedom, but tied to the past

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A carriage containing Fidel Castro’s ashes drives down the street at Parque Cespedes in Santiago de Cuba, Cuba, Dec. 3, 2016. Bringing to an end nine days of national mourning, the ashes of Fidel Castro were buried on Sunday morning in a cemetery in this coastal city where, 63 years ago, he began his socialist revolution. (Tomas Munita/The New York Times/Redux)

A carriage containing Fidel Castro's ashes drives down the street at Parque Cespedes in Santiago de Cuba, Cuba, Dec. 3, 2016. Bringing to an end nine days of national mourning, the ashes of Fidel Castro were buried on Sunday morning in a cemetery in this coastal city where, 63 years ago, he began his socialist revolution. (Tomas Munita/The New York Times/Redux)
A carriage containing Fidel Castro’s ashes drives down the street at Parque Cespedes in Santiago de Cuba. (Tomas Munita/The New York Times/Redux)

I don’t understand why I’m called a ‘dictator.’ What is a dictator? It’s someone who makes arbitrary, unilateral decisions, who acts over and above institutions, over and above the law, who is under no restraint but his own desires and whims. Look, I don’t make unilateral decisions.

—Fidel Castro, My Life, A Spoken Autobiography, 2006

The ashes of the 20th century were hauled in a toy-sized trailer behind a drop-top jeep. There was a small wooden hope chest—a tiny casket for a giant man—covered in a red, white and blue flag on the flatbed, and this was encased in a glass sarcophagus that was fogged from the appalling heat.

Within the miniature coffin were the ashes of Fidel Castro Ruz. Much of Santiago de Cuba—”Hero City of the Revolution”—had turned out to await the slow-motion mausoleum of their unshaven Comandante-en-Jefe. Dead at last at 90, Castro had been cremated in Havana a week earlier before embarking on this final procession across the Caribbean’s largest island.

On Sunday, Raúl Castro would place his brother’s cremains in a tomb at a cemetery of martyrs and seal them behind a thick bronze plaque, just to make sure.

On Saturday, at noon, legions of uniformed children who never have enjoyed a Chicken McNuggets Happy Meal lined the sidewalks at the Parque de Céspedes, named for an abolitionist planter and anti-Spanish rebel of the 19th century. On one side of the quadrangle was the thick-walled home of a Castilian colonial governor from the 1500s. Opposite was the Casa Granda Hotel, its balcony invaded by European tourists seeking mojitos and Che Guevara T-shirts.

At the south end of the square were the ash-grey steeples of the Basilica of Santa Ifigenia, its portico draped with tinsel and adorned with a life-sized Nativity scene, incongruous at this hour of solemn and strongly encouraged mourning for the godless Communist who had outlawed Christmas celebrations in 1969, sending the urbanites into the sugar cane fields instead.

The decision “didn’t have anything to do with our traditions, just our climate,” Castro said in 1998, reinstating the birth of the Saviour as a sop to a visiting Pope. Now, at Santa Ifigenia, a sign said “Christmas is Rebirth.”

On the north end of the plaza was the Ayuntamiento, the seat of local government, from whose very balcony Castro had proclaimed the triumph of his revolution over the Mafi-ocracy of Fulgencio Batista on  Jan. 3, 1959.

“At last the people have been able to free themselves from this rabble,” Castro had declared that day. “Now anyone may speak out, whether they are for or against.”

“At the present moment, power must be consolidated before we do anything else. Before all else, power must be consolidated.”

Fifty and more years later, this above all remained true. Fidel Castro—and sultry Che, and little (in size if not in sycophancy and ruthlessness) Raúl—had offered the Cuban people a tripartite choice: Surrender, suffer or swim.

¡Yo soy Fidel!” the children at the Parque Cépedes chanted, waiting for the cortège—“I am Fidel!” And the giant TV screen on the Casa Granda Hotel echoed their fervency in soul-killing repetition: “the sacrifice of hundreds and thousands” …. “for the first time in the 400-year history of our country, we were entirely, entirely free” …. “facing our future with our loyalty and dignity intact” … “not only for the cause of our country, but for the entire world.”

At the centre of the square, an exhibition of photographs. Fidel alone on a mountain crag, Fidel with the children, Fidel with Leonid Brezhnev, Fidel on a basketball court in hi-top Chucks.

“He proved that there is another way,” parroted a man who identified himself as a teacher of mathematics. “Not only for Cuba, but for the whole world.”

The playing of the national anthem heralded the arrival of the humble procession. The mourners sang it with conspicuous lust—by some estimates, one in three adult Cubans may be a Communist Party informant. Yet there were no bomb-sniffing dogs in the Parque Céspedes, no snipers on the rooftops, no visibly armed presence at all. Compare this to the portable fortress of the President of the United States, just across the yearning, yawning straits.

The sacred jeep and trailer halted for a moment in front of the Ayuntamiento, then trundled on. The giant screen reverted to the programming of the day, the week, the past half-century—Castro embracing Nelson Mandela. Castro kissing Hugo Chávez. Castro trading feathery punches with a trembling Muhammad Ali. Now all of them were gone.

An elderly doctor came on the air to talk about an epidemic of dengue fever on the island, 30 or more years ago. “It was introduced by the CIA as a form of chemical warfare,” the physician said. “The Comandante was always preoccupied with the condition of the children…”

“Did you love Fidel?” a reporter asked a Serbian woman who had come to observe the scene. She was one of dozens of outlanders in the plaza, including a U.S. tour group that was wearing small black ribbons “for the Cuban people.”

“Maybe Che, yes, because he died young,” the Serbian woman said. “But not Fidel. I have had enough of dictators. We had one of our own.”

The caravan proceeded eastward, toward the decrepit cinderblock barrios of the Hero City and the former Moncada military barracks that the young Fidel and his brother Raúl and Che Guevara and their few first followers had stormed in the portentous summer of 1953, each of them prepared to die—and to kill—for their ideas.

Moncada in December 2016 contained a public school and a small museum that held the bloodstained clothing of Castroites captured and tortured by Batista’s men; the four pesos that Fidel Castro Ruz had in his pocket when he was taken prisoner that day; a newspaper from July 27, 1953, headlined FIDEL CASTRO DEAD.

“History will absolve me,” the novice lawyer had prophesied at his trial, before being freed with the aid of the Roman Catholic Church and regrouping in Mexico and, later, waging remorseless, photogenic war from the Sierra Maestra. Now, finally, history would have its turn.

In Parque de Céspedes as the plaza emptied was a man who was leaning on a 1957 Ford with a Soviet Lada engine. “I am speaking personally and not with the majority,” the man said when his passenger was safely inside. “Fidel Castro is not my father. I have my own father at home.”

Thousands of people gather in Revolution Plaza for a memorial event for Castro. (The Asahi Shimbun/Getty Images)
Thousands of people gather in Revolution Plaza for a memorial event for Castro. (The Asahi Shimbun/Getty Images)

It’s true, it’s correct, I’d be willing to agree with the charge that we committed some errors of idealism, maybe we tried to go too far, too fast … But no country has faced any adversary so powerful, so rich…

—Fidel Castro

The Santiago zoological garden was announced by a sign on the fence that said “The Park of Dreams.” It was located on the slopes of San Juan Hill, where—in U.S. history books, at least—Teddy Roosevelt led his Rough Riders to victory in the Spanish-American War of 1898.

It cost 40 times more for a non-Cuban to enter the zoo than it would a national, the dual-currency system a reflection of the almost complete dependence of the island’s economy on remittances from the same expatriates who danced on Calle Ocho in Miami last week when El Comandante checked out.

“I am Jesus,” the gatekeeper smiled, and he opened his wallet to reveal an ID card with the name Jesus Soto, a portrait of the haloed Son of God, and a condom that looked as if it had been waiting there, hoping, for a long, long time.

It is almost impossible to describe the heartbreaking condition of the enclosures and the few still-living animals of the Santiago Zoo on the day that Fidel Castro returned to the Cradle of the Revolution. There was a single, sagging baboon, a pair of crocodiles, a North American black bear, flattened by the heat. “We had two hippos, but they died,” Jesus confessed.

A weathered chimpanzee, padlocked in a personal Moncada of bare concrete and rusted iron, knuckled over to say hello. Then she scooped up a handful of water and flung it into our faces.

“What is your dream for Cuba?” Jesus was asked.

“Take down the fence,” he answered.

In a small, shaded park in the centre of the city is a friendly man in a wheelchair, one leg entirely missing, the other twisted into a parenthesis.

“Angola?” he was asked, for he was the same age as the tens of thousands of soldiers whom Castro had sent to the jungles of Africa, to liberate those lands from tyranny, just as he had freed Cuba.

“I was born like this,” the man replied. “I had a twin brother, but he lived only one year. But I am 51 and still here!”

So there was Cuba’s universal medical care to cite, and the campaign against illiteracy that allows virtually every Cuban to read such pap as Rebelde Juventud with its headlines that screamed WE ARE MORE UNITED THAN EVER and IT IS NOT ADIOS, ONLY A CONTINUATION. Or the poem in the memorial edition of Sierra Maestra.

“Hombre, teach us to know you like Jesus Christ, that there will not be a single altar without a light for thee.”

A server at a small, private restaurant with its own altar crowned by empty bottles of Johnny Walker Red and Beefeaters Gin, proof of foreign connections.

“Was Fidel a hero or a devil?”

“A devil. A devil of intelligence!”

A soldier stands guard near Castro's tomb. (Eliana Aponte/Bloomberg/Getty Images)
A soldier stands guard near Castro’s tomb. (Eliana Aponte/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

We aren’t done by a long shot. We live in the best time in our history, with the greatest hope ever, and you see it everywhere.

—Fidel Castro

On Saturday night, tens of thousands of Santiagüeros were bused to the Plaza of the Revolution to hear 85-year-old Raúl Castro gargle a long recitation of the regime’s glorious victories, most of them dating from the 1950s and 60s, and then to close his speech with the call to arms “Onward forever, Fidel!”

No one was heard whistling from the back of the crowd, as a few defiant Romanians had heckled Nicolae Ceauçescu in 1989, ushering in the dictator’s downfall and—days later —his execution. And no students from a local college of art erected a plaster figure of the Goddess of Liberty, as those giddy, foolish young Chinese had done in Tiananmen Square, earlier that same year, before the statue—and their fantasies—were destroyed.

The next morning, as Raúl placed his brother’s cinders into a tall stone plinth, Cuba’s second city fell quiet—music still was banned until Monday. Shops remained shuttered—not until the workweek would the beneficiaries of the Cuban Revolution need to line up for hours to buy a single loaf of bread, or trade their worthless pesos for the photo ID that is required before a citizen who doesn’t receive dollars from a cousin in Miami is permitted to buy his monthly ration of meat.

It had been a seminal year for the Free Territory of the Americas, as Radio Havana long introduced its programming on shortwave. In 2016, 60,000 Cubans attempted to make it to U.S. soil by water. Thousands more were stranded on the border of Panama and Costa Rica, striving to reach California or Arizona by land.

“They leave because they want a car,” Castro once huffed, before his brother shut him in his tomb, there to lie until he is torn from the rock by the next generation of dreamers who dare to try to remake this haunted isle once again.

At the summit of San Juan Hill, on Sunday afternoon, clutches of young lovers picnicked beneath the competing memorials to 1898 that were erected by two nations that have been giving the finger to each other for more than 50 years.

The U.S. memorial, dated 1928, said “the blood of the brave and true Cuban insurgent and that of the generous and noble American sealed a covenant of Liberty and Fraternity between two nations.”

The Cuban monument, installed in 1959, read “on this hill, the young American empire subjugated Cuba to its neo-colonial domination.”

It was breezy at the top of the hill, and the view was spectacular—over the jungly mountains, over the squalid slums, out toward the sea and other nations blessed by the sun and often cursed by history—Haiti, Jamaica, Dominican Republic.

A well-fed man in a tan uniform, wearing a badge that said “Protección” wandered here and there, sweeping up.

¿Qué falta Cuba?” a tourist asked him in Spanish. What does Cuba lack?

The Cuban answered in English, when no one else was close enough to hear, “Cuba needs free.”