Havana in mourning: ‘We Cubans are Fidelista even if we are not communist’
The Guardian, by Stephen Gibbs, Jonathan Watts and Ted Francis
Revolution … is sacrifice,” echoed the trembling voice of an elderly Fidel Castro around the streets of Old Havana at dawn on Saturday, as Cuban state radio began replaying his speeches, the day after his death.
Dani, 37, who takes tourists around the cobbled streets on his bicitaxi, had woken to be told the momentous news by a neighbour. “I didn’t believe it,” he said. Like many Cubans of his generation he had begun to assume that Castro would be around for ever. El Comandante’s 80th birthday, a decade ago, had been celebrated with posters declaring “80 more years”.
Outside the art deco Bacardi building, one of many private businesses expropriated in the 1960s by a young, triumphant Castro, Mario Astoria, a security guard, was sitting on his own. “I feel this in my heart,” he said. “When Fidel came to power this country was a pebble in the ocean. Now everyone knows about us.”
The previous evening, at Havana’s current hippest spot, the cavernous art gallery and nightclub Fabrica de Arte, there was a different atmosphere. At midnight, it began closing its bars, without explanation. The rumour spread that the reason was a forthcoming momentous announcement. When the news finally came, it drifted out slowly. Castro was always suspicious of the internet, and Cuban mobile phones are still not able to connect to it. Locals were depending on foreign tourists with connectivity to tell them their “historic leader” had died.
Liset, 26, a dancer, gasped with shock when she heard. Like many Cuban artists she had met Fidel. “I was once besotted with him,” she said. But she confessed to being more intrigued than sad to hear of his death. “I began to feel that what he was saying, and what we were living, were two different things,” she said.
Out on Havana’s dimly lit streets people began to make their way home. Many seemed reluctant to talk about the man whose mortality was once such a sensitive subject that foreign ministry officials cut short conversations with diplomats and journalists that dared mention it.
By morning, close to Castro’s relatively modest bungalow home in the east of the country, there was no sign of the major state security operation planned had he died when still in power. One of Castro’s mantras was that “revolutionaries never retire”. Had a serious intestinal ailment not almost killed him in 2006, forcing him to step down, few imagine that the world’s longest-serving non-royal head of state would have willingly handed control of the nation to anyone, even his younger brother.
But in his twilight years Castro appeared to enjoy stepping back from the onerous duties of the presidency, if not the limelight. He abandoned his trademark khaki uniform, instead opting for a more comfortable tracksuit, in which he would occasionally be photographed meeting visiting dignitaries.
“He had his good days and his bad days,” said one Havana-based European diplomat. On those “good days” he would make his views clear, writing an often-rambling newspaper column, which was dutifully read out in its entirety on the nightly news. He avoided praising – or criticising – his brother Raúl’s unravelling of some of the more pedantic rules which he had imposed, such as a prohibition of Cubans staying in tourist hotels, or having mobile phones in their own names.
As relations between Cuba and the United States improved, Castro came as close as he had to directly criticising his brother, saying the Cuban president had the right to make his own decisions, but “I don’t trust the policy of the United States”.
Castro died at 10.29pm on Friday, but the Cuban public were not informed until a midnight broadcast by President Castro.
In a southern suburb of the city, the Rodríguez family watched in a stunned silence that continued long after the broadcast had ended. “El Caballo is dead,” said Leo, finally, referring to Castro by his nickname of “the Horse”, as his voice cracked with emotion.
The airport worker is a devoted Fidelista who still drapes a revolutionary flag from his apartment window on national day. He met his wife Clarita at the Union of Young Communists. They credit the government for subsidised housing, free university education and free healthcare, which is of particular importance to their daughter, who needs to see a doctor every two weeks for treatment of a chronic condition.
Given such benefits, they expect huge crowds to gather at the capital’s Plaza de la Revolución to show their respect. “The plaza will be overflowing,” Clarita predicted.
Their neighbour was also shocked. Like many of her generation, 36-year-old Elena hates the restrictions imposed on free speech in Cuba and has long wished that the “dictatorship” would collapse. But she was in tears when she heard the news. “Of course I’m crying,” she said. “We Cubans are Fidelista even if we are not communist.”
Elsewhere in the city, residents expressed their sense of loss.
“I’m speechless. Many Cubans are dismayed,” said Mercedes Copa, 59. “Fidel’s death opens a period of uncertainty. Perhaps today is the start of a new stage in Cuban history,” said Irma Guzman, her neighbour.
Castro’s death opens up many uncertainties in a country that has long become used to an exceptionally slow pace of change. The crisis in Venezuela, which for over a decade has sent cheap oil to Cuba, is being acutely felt. Power cuts and gasoline shortages are once again commonplace.
In his presidential campaign, Donald Trump has pledged to reverse President Obama’s opening up to Cuba, which has included the restoration of diplomatic ties and easing of travel restrictions. Raúl Castro has himself said he will stand down from the presidency in 2018.