Cuba Two Weeks On: Life After Castro
On Friday the 25th of November, 2016, Fidel Castro passed away. Some of you are probably still wondering who the hell Fidel is, while others will be thinking Wait, he wasn’t dead already? Well, he’s been dead to many Cubans for decades.
Castro is one of the most controversial figures in modern history. The late rebel dictator of Cuba affected great change, and had tremendous influence in Cold War politics. His Marxist-Leninist views fostered fear in the US, not to mention the conscious coupling of Cuba and the Soviet Union. This partnership was largely parasitic. At major risk of over-simplifying it, (and at major risk of internet trolls/history buffs/wankers intervening), let me say this: Cuba and Castro were mere pawns in the Cold War game. The island’s proximity to the US was too good an opportunity for the Soviets to pass up, and Castro’s communist ideologies were bloody convenient at the time. The Soviets financially sponsored Cuba, and the island thrived. In return, Cuba hosted Soviet missiles – a controversial move that would lead to what is now known as the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the Bay of Pigs fiasco. It was only when the Soviet Union ripped their rich, milky teat from the suckling mouth of Cuba’ that things went awry. Cuba entered The Special Period, and were plunged into economic turmoil, meaning rations, low morale and hardship coloured the early 90s in the country.
El Comande Castro was Cuba’s head of state for 47 years, from 1959 to 2006. It was in in 2006 when he fell ill, and handed all formal responsibilities to his brother, Raúl, who later officially became president in 2008. Ahhh, nepotism. If that doesn’t scream corruption, I don’t know what does. To be fair, Raúl was part of Fidel’s army in La Revolución, and, along with Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevera, played an integral role in the Rebel’s victory over former leader, Batista, in 1959.
Castro is a divisive kinda guy. On one hand, he stands for equal access to healthcare, education, and a base wage. On the other, he’s all about religious repression, financial monopoly and borderline mind-control.
Today, Cubans are still divided, and the mood here is bizarre. Following the death of Fidel, a period of mourning was announced for nine days, which ended yesterday. It seems Castro is still ruling from beyond: no alcohol, no music and no dancing. This is not the Cuba that Lonely Planet promised. Plazas around the country are eerily quiet, the cobbled streets of Trinidad host no salsa steps, only the sandalled steps of foreigners looking for something to do. Tourists can be overheard lamenting how disappointed they are at this apparent inauthentic experience: from “Why did he die now? Couldn’t he have held on three more weeks?” to the simple-minded “I just want a beer.”
Locals, however, are more difficult to gauge.
It is hard to tell if it is a language barrier, if they are privately mourning or if they really just don’t give a fuck about the old man’s death. Switching on the (government owned) TV, you can see patriotic locals proclaiming their love for Castro. They ferociously shake Cuban flags, and their tearful faces, with “Yo soy Fidel” scrawled across their foreheads, wail down the camera. Outside, there are houses are adorned with Cuban flags, and posters of Fidel are hung in windows.
Anyone would think this guy was a hero. And to some, he was. Speaking with locals, you hear stories of how they have benefitted from free medical procedures that were otherwise unaffordable, or the blessing that was a base wage when their sugar plantation closed its doors. Others, however, speak of their disdain for the system, eyebrows knitting together in pensive fury before trailing off, or literally wandering off and leaving you wondering what the hell they’re really thinking. In Old Havana, Cuba, there is enforced mourning. In Little Havana, Miami, there is unsolicited celebration. By and large though, it seems that locals in Cuba are unperturbed, perhaps even inconvenienced, by their former leader’s death.
Domestic and international coverage of Cuba would have you believe that the entire country is heartbroken, that they’re crippled and emotionally fragile, unable to go on now that their rebel leader is no more. But this is not so. Footage beamed to you is sensationalised. Sure, roads close and streets are lined for the late Castro’s processional, with thousands turning out to see his ashes, cloaked in the national flag, drive past. But moments after the convoy passes, roads re-open, and people disperse.
Fidel Castro’s final requests were that he not be immortalised in statues or monuments, with Raul stating that his brother “did not believe in the cult of the personality”. Raul Castro is reportedly perusing legislation to ensure his late brother’s wishes be upheld. Perhaps something many Cubans will be pleased with.
The last hurrah for Fidel is retracing La Caravana de Libertad, the Caravan of Liberty; his ashes touring the nation, taking the same route that he and his army took after claiming victory in Santiago de Cuba 1959. Now, however, La Caravana de Libertad means something very different now for many Cubans. Liberation from a dark past, and with hope for a future that’s bright with promise… Never mind the fact that a Castro is still in power.
Cover via NBC; inset by author