The morning after the 29 November 2016 memorial rally, Fidel’s ashes toured Havana, the beginning of a 4-day cross-country journey east to Santiago de Cuba. The route traced in reverse January 1959’s Caravan of Liberty when Fidel travelled from Santiago to Havana celebrating the end of the Batista dictatorship, the culmination of the Cuban Revolution.
Rocío and I witnessed Fidel’s ashes pass three times, once in Havana on 30 November and twice in Santiago on 3 and 4 December. On all occasions, people lined the streets in anticipation. Officials stood at regular intervals ensuring people remained off the road.
Old Havana, 30 November 2016
Early on 30 November we walked from our Old Havana accommodation to coastal Avenida del Puerto (San Pedro) for the caravan.
Helicopters buzzed overhead as we waited in anticipation.
Many different vehicles drove past including police motorcycles and cars, modern Mercedes Benz sedans, vans, jeeps and a truck from which official media recorded proceedings.
Exhibited in a trailer, Fidel’s ashes casket was covered with the Cuban flag and surrounded by a glass case. White flower arrangements lay on both sides of the army green trailer which was towed by an identically-coloured, open-topped wagon.
Interestingly, in both Havana and Santiago, a second, similarly-shaped but covered trailer came past after the casket-containing trailer. What was this second trailer for? Was it a back-up trailer in case the first one broke? Did it indeed have the real ashes while the first one was only for show? Were two caskets on occasion parading in different locations at the same time?
Travelling from Havana to Santiago, 1 December 2016
The day after Fidel’s 25 November death, the Cuban government announced memorial events including the caravan to Santiago. This gave affected towns time to tidy up the route and prepare Fidel tributes. It also gave us time on the 26th to buy Viazul bus tickets to Santiago (51 CUC/USD each) before event-seekers arrived to Cuba and competed for seats.
Departing 6am, our bus was scheduled to arrive to Santiago at 9:10pm. However, because of 3 unscheduled stops near Sancti Spíritus, Ciego de Ávila and Gaspar we didn’t arrive until after 3am the next morning. At each middle-of-the-highway stop we waited for the caravan, invisible in the far distance.
Cuba is the most unique country I have visited and the bus journey illustrated this. The driver on duty wanted me to check in my carry-on sized bag because the Yutong bus overhead racks could only carry 10 kilograms (in total). This was despite the racks stating a limit of 10kg per metre. After some insistence he relented and allowed me to bring it on. Thank goodness he did because the bus was EXTREMELY cold. Despite requests, the drivers would not turn the air conditioning down. The inside temperature gauge read 24 degrees centigrade even though it felt like 10. For note, the outside temperature gauge displayed 69 degrees centigrade.
Thankfully, we eventually arrived to Santiago and departed the freezing bus for an old American saloon ride to our accommodation.
Santiago de Cuba, 3 December 2016
Santiago is the birthplace of the Cuban Revolution and home of the failed but later celebrated 26 July 1953 Fidel Castro-led attack on the Moncada Barracks. Santiago was also where Fidel’s ashes caravan terminated.
Santiago was full of Fidel images and Cuban flags. We took an old American taxi and then walked the remaining distance to Carretera Central, north of Plaza de la Revolución Antonio Maceo.
As in Havana, helicopters flew overhead and the same caravan vehicles passed, including the second trailer.
Just before us someone let three pigeons go above Fidel’s ashes.
After the caravan, groups of locals chanted pro-Fidel and pro-regime slogans.
Video of the caravan in Havana and Santiago, including the pigeons being released and the chanting:
Santiago de Cuba, 4 December 2016
The final destination for Fidel’s ashes was Santiago’s Santa Ifigenia Cemetery. Early on 4 December, for a third and final time, we watched his ashes pass, this time close to the cemetery. By this stage they had travelled more than 1,000 kilometres and it was time for a rest.