Tears in Havana

Tears in Havana
Scottish Review, Alan Fisher


She was surprised by the tears. She didn’t think she would cry. She told me of the woman she saw earlier who was weeping. It was a lot of emotion she said, almost dismissively.


We walked to Revolution Square, the spiritual heart of Castro’s Communist Cuba. There they had come in their thousands to wait for an opportunity to pay their own respects to the man they knew as ‘El Commandante’.


We shuffled our way in. There was a picture of a young Fidel dressed in battle fatigues, his rifle slung across his back. On either side of the portrait, four soldiers, two on each side, one front one back. All in full military dress. And to their side, dressed in t-shirts, members of the Young Communist Union.


The smile on my companion’s face was gone. She was solemn and considered. And as she walked back into the sunshine she cried. Not for long. But she broke.


Laura Chavez still remembers when Castro came to her school. She was 12. ‘We were so proud. Everyone was so smart, so well behaved. When we were in school and we were learning to write, we were told F was for Fidel. It’s what we all learned.’


She tried to explain why the brief walk through, her personal moment of reflection had affected her so much. Forty-four now, she cannot remember any other leader. ‘My grandfather died last year. He fought in the revolution beside him. He loved Fidel’.


Her grandfather worked in the tobacco industry. He was poorly paid. ‘The revolution was for him. His life got better after Fidel. I thought of him as we walked through’.


The Cuban leader doesn’t inspire the same thoughts throughout her family. ‘My father was brought up in a home with a dirt floor. Because of Fidel he came to Havana and received a first class education. And it was free. It gave him a life where he travelled the world’. 


But her brother sees nothing but broken dreams. ‘He thinks things should be much better, that young people should have more opportunities in a world that is changing’. He got into a row with his father: they didn’t speak for five years. The rift is mended. Her brother now lives in Miami and has expressed nothing for the death of Fidel.


The line to visit the memorial in Havana stretches back several kilometers. People stand in the sun, patiently waiting for their moment to file past. The conversations are hushed. The soldiers and police are relaxed. 


As they walk through the hall, there is no stopping. A guide urges people to keep moving. They can take videos and many have their mobile phones – a relatively new introduction to Cuba – pushed close to their faces. They take pictures trying to capture the moment – to remember what they saw, to remember what it meant and how it felt.


I saw two doctors in white coats openly weeping while a group of teachers gave each other support. ‘It is hard, so hard’ said one. When I left they had been lining up for hours and they would be there for hours more, through the night, waiting for to say their own goodbye to a man who dominated this nation for half a century.