Cuba Mourns Fidel, Maybe
Reactions on the ground in the aftermath of the leader's death
For nine days there was no alcohol sold on the island. Cuba is not a dry country, but it became one in mourning Fidel. “There was absolutely no alcohol being sold, not even to tourists,” Jenni, a visiting student from a US college on a study abroad program told me. “I would go to a paladar (private restaurant), and the first thing they would do would be to apologize and let me know that they weren’t serving alcohol; they could still mix cocktails but they would make [them] virgin drinks.” You know things are serious in Cuba when tourism gets affected. Things like power cuts and water shortages affect everyone, even the tourists in the hotels with big generators and water tanks, but mainly, tourists, unlike the majority of Cubans, have access to fresh produce, items like cheese and meat and fish, dairy, and quality cigars, and most definitely alcohol.
Fidel Castro died at age 90 on November 25th, 2016. His ashes were taken around the entire island so that all of Cuba could mourn him, and pay their last respects to the man who drastically changed the course of their country for the last half-century and more, and drastically altered their lives as a result. During the last moments, the car that carried the hearse with his ashes broke down, in an act that was mostly buried by media but reported in some news outlets, as a final fitting symbolism for the Cuban leader and the revolution that he drove. At some point on Sunday afternoon, the day of the burial, after nine days of mourning Fidel, stores started selling alcohol again.
“There was silence all over Havana. I didn’t feel that I was in Cuba. Normally, there’s music, there’s loud chatter, there’s always some kind of cacophony. Not in the last nine days. There was absolute silence,” Roberto Garcia, a resident of Vedado tells me as we sit in his home on Monday afternoon, the day after the burial. We hear the jingle of an ice cream vendor. “Not even that. You couldn’t hear anything.”
There were new images and posters of Fidel around the city declaring “Fidel es el pueblo” (Fidel is the people) and “Fidel vive en nosotros” (Fidel lives in us). Additionally, I saw a lot more flags than I had ever seen before outside of May Day celebrations in Havana. I also saw a lot of the red and black flags of the 26th of July, commemorating Fidel’s attack on the Moncada garrison in Santiago, beginning the revolution. In addition to official buildings, which usually carry flags, shops and restaurants had draped the flag on their exteriors or window fronts, and people had strung up flags on their houses, as a sign of respect and mourning.
“So why do some houses and shops have flags and others don’t? Does that mean they aren’t concerned about Fidel?” I asked Roberto as we walked towards Linea and Paseo to catch a cab to Old Havana. He looked around and said, “You know, flags are expensive here. Not many people own [one]. The other possibility is that people don’t care. At least not enough to go out and buy a flag.” In a country where the mean monthly income is 600 pesos (according to the Cuban Centro de Investigaciones Psicológias y Sociológias or CIPS), a cheap imitation flag costs between 360 and 480 pesos. It’s much cheaper and probably easier to buy a Cuban flag outside of Cuba, a friend laughed and told me over dinner.
That rings true of most things — in some ways it’s easier to access Cuba outside of Cuba than inside it. Some of the best Cuban musicians are found outside the island; the same goes for artists, dancers, and anyone who achieves a certain degree of success. It’s an interesting kind of competitive experiment — there is endless possibility to make it to the top in Cuba because that spot is only occupied by a certain group of people for so long.
What happens now is a question I found myself asking others around me. The end of Fidel has been a much-awaited moment by most of the Cuban diaspora in Miami and in other places. They left in droves after the revolution in 1959, and after Playa Giron (the Bay of Pigs invasion) in 1961, and decided to wait it out — to wait out the revolution, and Castro. Will the exiles now return? Return to claim their right to Cuba that they left long ago?
“What we are witnessing right now is not really a change. Things will continue to be as they are. Fidel was not running the country; he had resigned from public office ten years ago. He had handed [things] over to another Castro: Raul, his brother. This is certainly a significant moment for our country, but more in terms of symbolism, less in terms of concrete change,” Gisela Angel, a former researcher with CIPS explained to me.
Perhaps then the question should be: “what happens after Raul?” He has hinted at retiring after 2020, but in very uncertain terms. Currently, Cuba continues to struggle, embracing neoliberal reforms and welcoming tourists in a bid to boost the economy. However, there seems to be limited circulation of the money that is apparently brought to the island by tourists. There is evidence of more material wealth, there is lots of construction on the island, new hotels are being built, people are traveling more, young people are being allowed to leave, more and more private home owners are renting out rooms to tourists via Airbnb, or through word of mouth. And yet, there is increasing homelessness, and the gap between the upper class and the working class is widening as state subsidies shrink and are unable to provide a wide enough security net to sustain households.
In many ways, la lucha, (the struggle) continues and seems endless. While in Havana the revolution seems archaic, in the countryside, there are still staunch Fidelistas, even amongst the youth. In a chat with Akin Ekunkonye, a US medical student studying in Matanzas, I asked about the mood at his school. He told me that Fidel was well-regarded amongst the students, noting that as different from the attitude amongst the youth and students in Havana. He recalled the low spirits and gloom amongst the students in Matanzas after Fidel’s death. “For nine days, everyone was sad and depressed, and there was mourning and deep silence. And then they partied. The music came back, they danced and it seemed that they danced their sorrow away,” Akin ended his anecdote with a smile.
Fidel’s actual demise was the moment he stepped down from power,” adds Roberto. “That, in a sense, was the death of Fidel.” I walk around the city searching for answers in its maze of ruins and new construction and restored façades. Fidel seemed largely irrelevant in the last nine years certainly, but his larger-than-life imprint upon the island since 1959 endures. Cubans continue to work through a maze of confusing legislation that grants privileges and restricts rights simultaneously. There are slow shifts in the law, allowing people to buy and sell property, to own more than one property, to leave the island.
“Every hour, upon the hour, during those nine days of mourning, the canons would be fired to mark his demise. That’s nine days times 24 hours a day. Do you know how much gun powder that is?” Roberto asked me, shaking his head indignantly. “There are [usually] restrictions on the canons being fired because of the proximity to Old Havana, and all those were put aside at that moment.” Arriving the day after the burial, I had just missed the loud, cacophonous, hourly reminders that Fidel had departed. I wondered how those living in Old Havana felt about the noise and the farewell salute. Were they as indignant as Roberto or merely acquiescent? As with most things in Cuba, the answer is not easy or simple, and rarely straightforward.
It is now one of the warmest Decembers that the island has seen in the last several years. The country has ended its mourning just in time for the inauguration of the 38th New Latin American film festival, held every December in Havana. It runs from the 8th to the 18th, followed by the jazz festival, taking place in Santiago and Havana from December 16th to 28th. The air is festive, tourists are plentiful, and rum is flowing once again. There is much to celebrate, and simultaneously much to criticize. And as for the young people, they are making plans, and trying to leave the island. Fidel or no Fidel.