Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruiz was one of the most influential and controversial people of the 20th century. He led Cuba’s communist revolution, ruled the country for almost 50 years and inspired and assisted left-wing movements regionally and globally. Even after handing over presidency to his brother Raul in 2008, Fidel was still regarded as the most powerful person in Cuba.
Saturday was going to be another interesting but normal day exploring Havana for Rocío and I. Instead, in the morning our hosts informed us Fidel had died aged 90 at 10:29pm the previous night (Friday, 25 November 2016). Our plans changed.
Cuba has only state-run mass media and on the 26th the radio and television stations broadcast Fidel specials all day. Television programming invited people to email tributes to the country’s longest-standing leader.
The above email tribute roughly translates as:
Fidel planted everything good and better within each person who knew him, read or followed his story. It is not possible for the seed of his imprint to die, it germinates in every honest, simple, combatant man and woman. Today the world is moved, every human being who boasts of being worthy and just has a tight heart and desire to continue making the way to a better world.
Ever onward to victory!
Cuba had entered 9 days of official mourning with memorial events planned in Havana, a four day caravan travelling cross-country to Santiago de Cuba followed by another memorial and, finally, the internment of Fidel’s ashes in Santiago’s Santa Ifigenia Cemetery. We didn’t want to miss any of the historic proceedings and on the 26th bought bus tickets to Santiago for the 1st of December.
The Havana streets displayed relatively little indication such a major event had occurred, particularly early on. Flags flew at half-mast and entertainment and alcohol sales were officially prohibited for the 9 day period from 6am on 26 November until 12pm on 4 December. I surmised that, in a place lacking freedom of speech, people don’t spontaneously react publicly. Instead, they wait for authorisation or command.
During the mourning period people and businesses largely kept the prohibitions although we did enjoy a few strong cocktails at a Havana bar playing reggae music. The bar’s owner’s view was that, as long as they were respectful, people should be able to choose to mourn Fidel however they wanted.
One of the events cancelled was Plácido Domingo’s first Cuban concert. We had seen Domingo arrive to Havana’s Great Theatre on the Thursday the 24th.
The José Martí Art Instructors Brigade National Directorate was close to our accommodation in Old Havana. There, people paid tribute to Fidel with a hand print mural and patriotic slogans chalked on the road.
We wanted local newspapers as souvenirs, particularly of the first day post-death, before media and event-seekers from around the world arrived to Cuba. On the 26th we couldn’t see any newspapers. However, on the 27th we were able to buy the previous day’s Granma. The newspaper officially costs 20 centavos (US$0.01) but we paid enterprising locals more than 1 CUC (US$1) per copy. Note: on the 27th we also saw a car hired by the BBC.
Like radio and television, all Cuban newspapers are state-run and function as government mouthpieces. Granma is the Official Voice of the Communist Party of Cuba Central Committee and is Cuba’s widest circulating newspaper. It is named after the yacht that carried Fidel Castro and 81 other rebels to Cuba in 1956.
The newspaper cover lists a story cut-off time of 6:30am. Authorities must have planned for Fidel’s death well in advance as cover stories already mention:
- Fidel’s body will be cremated based on his wishes
- Official mourning period details
- The full run down of official activities including:
- The public being able to pay homage to Fidel at the José Martí Memorial in Havana from 9am to 10pm on the 28th and 9am to 12pm on the 29th
- Cubans being able to pay homage to Fidel in each locality at places to be advised on the 28th and 29th
- A ceremony at the capital’s Plaza de la Revolución at 7pm on the 29th
- The transfer of Fidel’s ashes beginning on the 30th and ending in Santiago de Cuba on the 3rd of December; this will recall the January 1959 Caravan of Freedom (in the opposite direction)
- A ceremony at Santiago’s Plaza Antonio Maceo at 7pm on the 3rd
- A burial in Santiago’s Santa Ifigenia Cemetery at 7am on the 4th
What the newspaper didn’t mention was Fidel’s cause of death.
All of Granma’s 8 pages solely focused on Fidel, covering no other news. Some of the articles rehashed older stories praising El Comandante, but it also contained a 2 page spread reporting favourable reactions to Fidel from around the world. These included tweets from Latin American politicians and internet news stories.
The above three tweets translated:
Nicolás Maduro (President of Venezuela):
Fidel and Chávez built ALBA, PetroCaribe and paid the Way for the Liberation of our People…History Absolute
Rafael Correa (then President of Ecuador):
He was a great one. Fidel died.
Long live Cuba! Long live Latin America!
Salvador Sánchez (President of El Salvador):
With deep pain we received news of the death of our dear friend and eternal companion, Comandante Fidel Castro Ruz.
The original tweet times on Twitter are more evidence Cuban authorities were well prepared for Fidel’s death. For example, Rafael Correa tweeted about Fidel’s passing only 46 minutes after Fidel officially died (assuming he tweeted from mainland Ecuador’s time zone, 1 hour ahead of Cuba). Nicolás Maduro tweeted even earlier, only 41 minutes after Fidel passed.
How exciting to be somewhere history was occurring!