As mentioned in Granma, people could pay tribute to Fidel Castro on 28 and 29 November 2016 at the José Martí Memorial, part of Havana’s Revolution Square (Plaza de la Revolución). Not wanting to miss anything, on the morning of the 28th, Rocío and I caught an old American car from Old Havana. All roads near the plaza were closed so our expensive taxi fare provided even less value.
Arriving just after 9:30am under a fierce sun, the queue already stretched around the block to 19 de Mayo Street. A few foreigners supplemented Cubans in line to participate in the historical event. We took our position behind a woman in military uniform. While waiting, an enterprising local sold paper cones of roast peanuts for 1 CUP (US$0.04).
The José Martí Memorial is a Havana landmark dedicated to the Cuban independence hero José Martí. Constructed during the pre-revolution 1950s, the memorial consists of a star-shaped tower, a statue of Martí, six surrounding columns and gardens. Vultures circulated around the top of the tower. Unlike Zoroastrian towers of silence, there were were dead bodies here. In fact, differing from a traditional wake, Fidel’s body was not lying in state as he had been cremated two days earlier.
Closer to the tower, we could see infrastructure for Fidel’s 29 November memorial event on the open plaza.
Surrounding the plaza were giant forms of propaganda including a poster of Fidel and steel outlines of fellow Cuban Revolution heroes Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos.
Adjacent the memorial tower, journalists lingered and recorded stories for broadcast. Assessing a journalist’s appearance and manner Rocío correctly identified him as Japanese. Later, near the plaza, we saw a taxi with a CNN Havana sign. A day earlier we spotted a vehicle used by BBC News. The world was in town.
Colourful floral bouquets lay outside the memorial entrance. Inside, the atmosphere was solemn as expected. The wake included three exhibits with banners:
- The first stated (in Spanish):
The Communist Party of Cuba, the sole legitimate heir of the legacy and the authority of the Commander-in-Chief of the Cuban Revolution, comrade Fidel Castro Ruz.
- The central banner displayed a famous picture of Fidel from his pre-revolution rebel days.
- The third contained words describing Fidel’s concept of revolution.
Below each banner lay medals, presumably those awarded to Fidel during his life. Under the medals were rows of white roses and double chrysanthemums. Soldiers and high school students stood at attention around the central exhibit. Two large circular floral displays, again white, flanked the outer exhibits. Various officials loitered on the periphery.
To allow all to see, visitors were meant to pass the memorial in a continuous precession. For a clearer photo, I stopped briefly, to Rocío’s disapproval.
Video of the wake is shown later in this post.
Adjacent the plaza was a post office (Correos de Cuba) booth. Here we waited in the shade with other foreigners for the latest newspapers to arrive. Also waiting was a man from the US who had flown in specifically upon hearing of Fidel’s death.
Within earshot, students with banners were chanting and singing pro-Fidel and pro-regime propaganda for foreign visitors to see and record. Several students had either “Fidel” or “Yo soy Fidel” (I am Fidel) written on their faces or bodies.
Video of the wake and student rally:
After seeing the students rally we went back to waiting for newspapers and watching people walk to and from the wake, including war veterans with their medals and many in their work uniforms.
The Tuesday, 30 November Juventud Rebelde (Rebel Youth) newspaper contained an article and picture from the wake showing President Raúl Castro (Fidel’s brother) presiding over the final ceremonial guard on the 29th.
After the wake, the next big event marking Fidel’s death was the 29 November Havana memorial rally.