Eyewitness Santiago de Cuba: On Fidel Castro’s Farewell
“‘I am Fidel’—that was the official watchword for all Cubans mourning the Comandante.”
The passing of one epoch to the next isn’t something one can feel—or narrate—until after the fact. As it should be: Turning points can only be clearly seen long after they’ve occurred. But there are figures that jibe with currents in world affairs larger than themselves—people who come to symbolize their time, or big shifts in it—and who plainly seem, when exiting our worldly scene or taking new roles in it, to bear the weight of eras. This late fall of 2016, one feels sure, has offered not one, but two such figures.
The first came early in the month. It was the election, to the presidency of the United States, of a con-man-turned-TV-star plainly unfit for any profession but reality TV, but now pretending to the role—as leader of the free world—arrogated to his new office. The second came three weeks later. It happened in Cuba. On November 25, we learned of the death of Fidel Castro. The bearded revolutionary turned paternal caudillo didn’t merely rule his socialist island for fifty years—he also served as bogeyman for US presidents, hateful villain to the Miami Cubans whose islands he “stole” after seizing Havana in 1959, and as an outsized hero for politicians and people from across what was once called the Third World. He was a military and moral leader for those who knew well the abuses of power too often visited on the world’s poorer countries, during the scary decades of the Cold War, by leaders in Moscow and Washington, D.C. alike.
The concordance of these two dramatic turns didn’t go unnoticed, at least on the internet. One meme that went viral after Castro’s passing showed the old Comandante , who turned ninety earlier this year, musing that he would only allow himself to die when el imperio , the USA, fell apart. For us Americans now concerned for our Constitutional Republic under a man who won office by tapping lies into his phone like a seventh grader (and whose un-statesmanlike tweet in reply to Castro’s passing—“Fidel Castro is dead!”—was in the same vein), it may be hard not to see, in Trump’s ascent, the pending ruin that Castro supposedly foretold.
But either way, the death of Castro and Trump’s election were bound to cause waves in two countries whose affairs have for more than two centuries now been joined by “ties of singular intimacy,” as a leading historian of US-Cuba relations has put it. Even more so, given that both these events also coincided with a prosaic but crucial landmark between the two countries, pursued by Barack Obama: the resumption, this fall, of regularly scheduled commercial flights between the US and Cuba. That allowed me to call JetBlue and book a simple $200 flight from New York, by way of Florida, to the provincial Cuban city of Holguin—a quick drive from where Fidel Castro’s remains were set to be buried in the rural province in Eastern Cuba where he grew up and later launched his revolution, five hundred miles from Havana.
As a frequent visitor to Cuba from the US during the years before it was quite legal to do so, I long ago grew used to flying here only by way of Canada or Mexico; boarding a regular flight in Fort Lauderdale was novel indeed. So was the truth that—given its point of embarkation and its destination in the Cuban sticks—the plane was full not with tourists but Cubans who’d lived in South Florida for a generation or a year, and who were now taking advantage of cheap fares home to come aboard with big pink teddy bears for their nieces or blenders for their moms in the campo . Our plane arched up over the aqua sea and white flecks of the Bahamas, and then descended quickly down over another continental landmass, after what felt like twenty minutes. We bumped aground to the cheers of my plane-mates who, in the Cuban way, clapped our pilot’s safe delivery of us to a baking tarmac that we crossed to enter a shabby concrete terminal. Its windows were still taped with faded masking tape to guard against some recent hurricane, and peopled with the standard coterie of state employees staffing Cuba’s airports: The women by the X-ray machines wearing drab olive uniform miniskirts over fishnet stockings; others in white nurse’s uniforms from the island’s vaunted Ministry of Public Health, collecting information from each passenger here, and ensuring none were ill. Also, of course, the surfeit of uniformed police milling about; once, these officials required all visitors to supply a verified address or hotel here, and proof of an outward ticket; now, they simply welcome you to Cuba with a perfunctory stamp, and nary a question about your plans.
Over the terminal’s Formica bar, usually stocked with local beer and rum but barred from selling alcohol during the nine-day period of national mourning Raúl Castro had declared after Fidel’s death, hung a flat-screen TV that some of these officials and waiting taxi drivers watched intently. It was showing the same thing as every TV in Cuba: a small military jeep, pulling behind it a kind of iron cart, festooned with flowers. In the cart’s bed rested a small box, a kind of baby-sized hearse, wrapped in a Cuban flag. The cremated remains of Fidel, rolling past people waving Cuban flags, was nearing the end of its trip across Cuba by a conveyance, and along a route, which mirrored the journey Fidel and his merry band of bearded Robin Hoods rode here, in 1959, from the countryside into the capital, in a jeep like this one.
This procession had passed through this town, Holguin, the day before; the screen’s caption announced that the hearse was now entering the city of Santiago, where Fidel’s remains would be interred the next day, and to which I soon rolled, in a new Chinese-made car that is slowly replacing its old American and Russian ones here, down a smooth roadway still festooned with concrete placards freshly painted with the slogan—YO SOY FIDEL; “I am Fidel”—that was the official watchword for all Cubans mourning the Comandante , and that many young students watching his ashes pass, across the island, had drawn on their cheeks with face paint.
An overpass, over the roadway leading into Santiago, was emblazoned with the sort of boosterish slogan one grows used to here. BIENVENIDOS A LA CAPITAL DEL CARIBE Y CUNA DEL SON, it said—“Welcome to the Capital of the Caribbean and the cradle of the son .” Santiago, located in far southeastern Cuba and crouched at the base of the Sierra Maestra mountains, doesn’t face north toward Florida, like Havana. It faces south, toward the Caribbean—on clear nights here, you can glimpse the lights both of Jamaica and of Haiti, to the south and east respectively. Its culture, fed by the descendants of slaves and crucially shaped, in the early nineteenth century, by the aftermath of the nearby Haitian Revolution, is famed for the musicians who still rule its streets at carnival time and who also invented son —the music that the Buena Vista Social Club made synonymous with Cuba for the world only in the 1990s, but which many decades before that, formed the basis for salsa and much else that’s now known as “Latin music.” Santiago is where much of what Cuba shares with the world, in Havana, was born. And if this holds true for music, it’s even more so for politics.
Founded by the Spanish in 1515, Santiago is the city, as every Cuban knows, through which the island’s history has been most shaped—much more so than in Havana. It was here in Cuba’s “Orienté,” in the 1880s, that an ex-slave named Antonio Maceo, nicknamed “The Bronze Titan,” launched Cuba’s fight for freedom from Spain, and where José Martí, the poet-laureate of that struggle, was martyred during that final phase of a war which, in 1898, finally won Cuba independence. It was also here where Fidel Castro Ruz was raised with his brother Raúl on their father’s ranch north of the city, before attending a Jesuit boarding school in town, and then launching his career as a revolutionary here, too.
In 1953, he led a brazen attack on an army barracks here, occupied by the soldiers of the island’s hateful dictator at the time, Batista, which may have been doomed but which also made the brash young lawyer a public figure and allowed him, while defending his actions at trial, to make—in a speech he closed by stating “History will absolve me”—the first of his famous forecasts. It was here also where Fidel, after a stint in jail and spell in Mexico, descended with his guerillas from the surrounding mountains, in December 1958, to declare his revolution’s victory over Batista’s forces. Now, nearly sixty years to the week after he launched that campaign, many thousands of Santiagueros gathered here to bid him farewell on a vast concrete plaza. The plaza, built on the city’s outskirts by Fidel’s government, was named for the Bronze Titan, Antonio Maceo, whose humongous likeness, astride his horse and urging his countrymen onwards with a wave, loomed over a square now filled with Cubans waving little paper flags.
As Raúl Castro and a retinue of visiting and local dignitaries filed onto the plaza’s floodlit dais also adorned, tonight, with a huge photo of Fidel wearing a rucksack and gazing out from his guerilla days in the mountains nearby, Cuba’s state media pegged the sum of people here at the same number—500,000—they tossed out about all events like this. The room to walk and breathe in the plaza’s back half, where uniformed schoolkids sat in circles, paying far more attention to each other than to what was happening on stage, suggested a lower number than that. But with those kids’ attendance here, like that of all employees of the state here—which is to say, most of the city’s employed—was as requisite as turning up at school. There were, to be sure, a lot of people in the square. And some of them were even there because they wanted to be. An older fellow whose party allegiance was plain from his red shirt, and the impressive collection of medals pinned to it, told me that, though most of those medals were in recognition for his service to Cuba as an art teacher, he’d been a Fidelista since helping run guns to him in the Sierra Maestra, as a teenager, in the 1950s.
“But this revolution isn’t just about Fidel” insisted Nelson Espinoza, seventy-three, a religious reader of the Cuban Communist party’s official paper, the Granma , before patiently explaining to me, by way of making his point, how Europe’s colonial powers had abused the Caribbean—how the French saddled nearby Haiti with unpayable debts, after Haiti’s slaves freed themselves from bondage; how the Spanish who exploited Cuba in that same century—before the United States then swooped in here to control Cuba at the precise moment, in 1898, that it was wriggling free from Spain. “It was Fidel who recognized that to be free and sovereign, we needed to be free of neo-colonialismo and of America’s imperial rule, too.” When I asked him if he thought the younger Cubans around us felt the same way, he had his reply and a statistic, like all good Cuban communists, at the ready.
“Today, 83 percent of Cubans were born after the Revolution,” he waved warmly over the square. “But the youth, too, have absorbed the values of Maceo, and of Martí, that Fidel showed us how to turn into action.”
Such are the straight lines of official history here. It wasn’t hard, looking around the square, to contradict this party man’s appraisal of his younger peers’ “values”: Many seemed to value the Nikes on their feet, sent from Miami cousins, more than politics. They were here, more to the point, because they had to be. They perhaps didn’t resent spending a nice evening on a floodlit square; the vibe, among these flirting and singing kids, felt akin to a high school football game in the US. But it was hard not to feel like many of their displays of affection and songs for Fidel had more to do with enjoying their peers or fitting in than with any real fondness they had for a man who they’d only known, in living memory, as a frail viejo in a wheelchair. Places whose mores are machista and whose leaders are patriarchs, and Cuba is certainly one of those, struggle with succession.
What Cuban communism has always been good at is educating its young and caring for its old. Where the system has done less well is with the great desert of grown-ups in between: those Cubans between the ages of twenty and sixty who, once educated, often work for decades at farcical salaries, their ambitions blunted by state bureaucracies or their creativity quashed. The owner of the room I’d booked here, on airbnb.com, told me he’d worked for years at a local university as a nuclear physicist until deciding, last year and as Cuba’s economy opened slowly to the USA, that renting his lovely old home’s extra room on that website, for as much per night—$25 US—as his monthly salary at the university where he long worked, made for a better life.
Such are the vexing ills of an economy whose official works, imported from Soviet Moscow decades ago, have rusted nearly to a stop. But you can’t understand how Cuba looks from nearby without also absorbing what a photojournalist friend of mine from Haiti, whom I met in Port-au-Prince but who I ran into here where he’d come to cover history, who told me—this was his first time here—that Santiago was his new favorite city. “It’s just like Port-au-Prince before Duvalier,” he marveled of this town’s crime-free and convivial streets, recalling his youth. “No guns or hurt; just music.”
A similar admiration, one suspected, fed the arms of those in this crowd who waved flags of South Africa and Jamaica. These are two of the many countries whose abiding view of old Fidel is rather different from the one repeated like an incantation up north, by the likes of Donald Trump and the hard-right Miami Cubans he knows from his club there, and whose views he now parrots . South Africa, of course, is in Fidel’s camp for the deep gratitude felt there for his having sent Cuba’s soldiers to Angola, in the 1970s, to fight the apartheid regime there, and prevent white supremacy’s spread in southern Africa. In Jamaica, as in many poor countries around the Caribbean and beyond, many can tell you—and have been, on blogs there—about the schools Fidel opened, and the doctors sent from or trained in Cuba.
That Jamaican flag, whoever was waving it here, reminded me of the first time I glimpsed Fidel in person, during one of my first visits to the island, back in 2001. The occasion was a gathering of schoolteachers, from across the Americas, of a sort that Cuba often used to host—and where Fidel, one of whose favorite party tricks was to seem to be everywhere, turned up, already old but still burly in his olive fatigues and cap, to listen to what the schoolteachers of his continent had to say. His presence, naturally, changed the room’s air. But the man who was speaking—a Rastafarian fellow from Jamaica, whose own sense of personal style (he wore a fatigues jacket under his dreadlocks) took its cue from how Fidel had shown people of his generation, everywhere, how to dress like a “revolutionary”—managed to thank the Comandante , who nodded along, for proving with his successful campaign to make illiteracy disappear in Cuba that “everyone in these islands, we children of slavery and down-pression , deserve to learn.”
Fidel’s fatigues and the shtick, of course, often looked different from his own island. Plenty of Cubans of a certain age can tell you, and will, that for some very long and hard decades here, this same man who made bearded glamour iconic proscribed the wearing of long hair—not to mention more core facets of human identity, like being gay, or a critic of communism—among anyone who wanted to be viewed, in Fidel’s Cuba and on pain of social advancement in the society he ran, as a “good revolutionary.” Such were his flaws, often grave. But these weren’t the facets of his leadership mentioned by the lineup of admiring speakers, there in the Plaza Antonio Maceo, who stepped to the lectern under Fidel’s photo and before the rows of dignified admirers ranging from Latin American lefty presidents like Evo Morales of Bolivia and Lula of Brazil to Nelson Mandela’s corrupted heir at the head of South Africa’s ANC, Jacob Zuma, to the Argentine soccer great, Diego Maradona, whose lasting affection Fidel won by inviting Maradona to Cuba, in the 1990s, to treat his addiction to cocaine.
The head of Cuba’s association of combatants in wars, resplendent in a white guayabera, recounted the beyond-familiar story here of how Fidel, after crash-landing his boat Granma onto a beach near Santiago, had brought his twelve heroic guerillas into the mountains, including Che Guevara, to fight the dictator and turn Cuba into a “country of dignity, sovereign and free.” The head of the Cuba’s Union of Artists and Writers proclaimed that, notwithstanding those of his peers who were once expelled or jailed here, that “Cuban artists have had no better friend than Fidel.” The young woman leader of the youth wing of the Communist party, the UJC, perhaps best mimicked Fidel’s own cadence. She chanted his slogans with vim (“Toward victory, always!”), and recalled how when Che Guevara was martyred for the cause of world revolution, in 1967, Fidel had proclaimed to all Cubans, that “we will be like Che.” Her promise, now, was that her generation would strive to “be like Fidel.” It felt more than a touch stale. (What young person, anywhere, wants to be an old man in a wheelchair?) And then Raúl Castro, dressed in his olive general’s garb, his face hidden under hat and glasses, at last took the lectern.
Raúl’s voice was hoarse and tired; he looked and sounded, having promised to leave Cuba’s presidency in 2018, every one of his eighty-five years. He offered, as part of his brother’s eulogy, a familiar disquisition on the percentage by which Cuba’s Gross Domestic Production declined after the fall of Soviet Union (34.8 percent). He recited the familiar fact that Cuba, a poor country, thanks to its extraordinary system of public health, saw far fewer of its infants die than did the United States with its horridly “capitalist health care,” perhaps about to get more unjust still. And then he described Fidel’s final wants. “The leader of the Revolution rejected any manifestation of a cult of personality,” Raúl croaked of his brother, “insisting that, after his death, his name and likeness never be used to designate institutions, parks, avenues, streets, or other public spaces.” This gesture, in a country where Fidel had no problem subjecting his people to his own voice and image, for hours each day on their one TV station, for decades, may draw laughs: The egomaniac doth protest too much. The takeaway Raúl then offered, though, about a man long known for insisting that his country would be “the slave of no one,” felt harder to dismiss. Raúl closed his speech not by quoting Fidel but an older hero. “Together,” he intoned to cheers, “We all affirm [what was] expressed by the Bronze Titan: ‘Whoever attempts to conquer Cuba, will gather the dust of her blood-soaked soil, if he does not perish in the fight!’”
There in the crowd at Fidel’s final farewell, and especially in gazing at those flags of other countries in the crowd, it was hard not to suspect that the latter part of his legacy—the determination not to live under heel of a foreign power—may only grow in the era of a US president whose insulting tweets about foreign leaders (“Fidel Castro is dead!”) are conjoined with his stated objective, once in power, to pursue a policy driven by the principal of “America first.” That dictum, offered in keeping with Trump’s hazy drive to remove the United States from entanglements abroad, even as he also promises to reaffirm and fund its drive to maintain the world’s most potent military and to use its force, whenever required, to protect the superpower’s interests, rings loud alarms for all those deeply worried about what his “America first” policies may look like—or to reawaken the memory of how Fidel Castro, flawed and intemperate though his impulses could also be, became a global icon of his age by insisting, before the world, that he and his poor but proud island wouldn’t be dictated to, by anyone.
Now Fidel is gone. But a twelfth US president, one suspects, will still have to deal with him—or the force, at least, of his memory. Among his other shoddy tweets in reply to Fidel’s death, Trump voiced his threat, “if Cuba isn’t unwilling to make a better deal,” to roll back Obama’s policy of engagement with the island—a policy that has already done far more to “open” Cuban society, in eighteen months, than decades of isolation. But whatever happens with those policies, one feels sure that one thing Trump will learn quickly is that this remains Fidel’s island: Cuba won’t be bullied.
On the morning after the Comandante ’s final farewell, his remains were interred in Santiago’s Santa Ifigenia cemetery, where his heroes Maceo and Martí are buried, too. The ceremony was private and small; no foreign press or visitors were allowed. That afternoon, though, when the cemetery was opened at 2 p.m. for members of the public to pay their respects, I lined up with a few hundred Cubans, bearing single roses, and foreign press bearing cameras, to file past a big granite rock which, per Fidel’s wishes, was dwarfed by the ornate columns of Martí’s adjacent mausoleum. The simple granite rock, at whose foot now lay Fidel’s ashes, was carted here from the Sierra Maestra. It bore a simple plaque with one word—FIDEL—on it. From the cemetery, I headed back across town to see a man I’d met a few years before, and stayed in touch with after he told me that the handsome 1955 Ford Fairlane in which he’d once given me a lift had been personally gifted to his father by Raúl Castro, in 1959, after a fleeing Batista supporter had left it idling on a Santiago street.
As I climbed the rickety spiral staircase to Roberto Reyes’s humble apartment, with its view from the balcony of the nearby mountains, dark was starting to fall on Santiago. It had been nine nights since the period of official mourning had begun—nine nights is how long it takes, say Cuba’s santería priests, for the dead’s soul to leave their body—and the mood was starting to lift. Someone nearby was playing drums; the shop on Reyes’s corner, after keeping its liquor hidden for a week, was again selling rum, to the certain relief of many in this hard-drinking town. Reyes, a wiry man in his sixties with piercing gray eyes, shook his head with a mournful sigh when I asked him what he made of these historic days. “ No es facil ,” he intoned. “It’s not easy”—I wasn’t sure if he was referring to Fidel’s death, or life in Cuba, or its recent history. But he continued, invoking the Revolution’s start like it was yesterday. “When the Americans decided they didn’t like what he was doing here, you know, that was that. He was a hard-headed Gallego ”—Fidel’s forebears were from Galicia, in Spain—“and from back then to now, he was never going to do what the Americans said.” Reyes shook his head. “But this cabron , you know, we loved him a lot.”
Both those points—that Fidel Castro was an asshole, and that he was loved by many here—weren’t arguable. But neither was what Reyes also allowed when I pressed him on whether he thought young Cubans really felt the same way toward their parted leader as he did. “Maybe, “ he nodded, “we need some new heroes, too.”
Don’t we all.