My week in Cuba following Castro’s death

Time in Cuba usually moves slowly, but it took on a crazed momentum after Fidel Castro died.

At the time, I was in the Bolabana, a packed Havana nightclub, chatting to Carla, 23, a beautiful computer science student. We were discussing that day’s Marabana marathon and the joy and energy of Havana’s streets.

Suddenly the reggaeton stopped. A barman told us we had to leave “on the orders of State Security.” Outside, Carla checked her phone and exclaimed: “How amazing! Fidel is dead!”

I didn’t believe her. I’ve been visiting and working in Cuba for 25 years. I had come to believe he was immortal. But the intensity of emotions on the faces of everyone standing outside the Bolabana – shock, sadness, relief – confirmed the news. Sixty years to the day since Fidel Castro had boarded the Granma boat from Mexico to launch the Cuban revolution, his 90 years of hard-living had finally done to him what more than 600 assassination attempts had failed to bring about.

The party was over. The government of Fidel’s 85-year-old brother President Raul Castro immediately declared nine days of national mourning. It banned alcohol sales, and shuttered cinemas, theaters, museums, and baseball stadiums. A performance in the Gran Teatro the following evening by Placido Domingo, who had flown in 500 friends, was cancelled. So too were shows by ballet star Carlos Acosta, for which I had tickets. Even the dissident group, the Ladies in White, called off its weekly protests.

In the morning after Castro’s death, I went for a run down the Malecón, Havana’s storied waterfront, which is usually buzzing with lovers, fishermen, and hustlers. It was desolate. All flags had been lowered to half mast. All but one: the Stars and Stripes outside the US Embassy were still fluttering at full mast. The Cuban security guard on watch outside the front gate shook his head, as if to say, “What a lack of respect.”

A silence I had never felt fell over Havana. I met up with an ex-girlfriend, a 28 year old Cuban film actress and psychologist called Magdalay. She left the country, just like hundreds of thousands of millennials who have given up on the Cuban revolution to make new lives in the US and Europe. She was returning from Spain to see her parents for the first time in three years.

“I cried for three days after landing back in Cuba,” she told me. “It’s been hard in Spain but I always felt I had a refuge here. Now I can see how terrible Cuba is and Fidel’s death is going to make it even worse.”

To combat her pessimism, we left town and headed to the countryside of Pinar del Rio. Bolo, 31, a tobacco farmer who took us on a horseback tour through the idyllic Valley of Silence told us: “I haven’t slept since I heard the news. Fidel’s agrarian reforms gave my family work, dignity. He brought literacy to all our community. Fidel was like my father.”

In the usually lively town of Viñales, the only music to be heard was a recording of a school choir that blared out nationalist anthems in the main square, as hundreds of people filed in to the town square to pay their respects to a 1962 Alberto Korda photograph of Fidel holding a rifle in the Sierra Maestra. In the line, Carina, 16, was fiddling with a rose. “I don’t really care,” she shrugged. “I’m only here because my school bussed me in.”

The ban on booze was starting to leak. In one restaurant, a waiter quietly offered “wine by the glass” on the grounds that it was just a “digestivo” for lunch. By the time we came back for dinner, that option was off the menu. A police inspector had rumbled them, and imposed a hefty fine. Fortunately, I had a bottle of Havana Club rum hidden in my backpack, so we were able to order deferential Coca Colas and secretly transform them into Cuba Libres.

Fidel’s death has made Cuba’s future even more uncertain. To escape such anxieties, we headed for the beach. We drove north to Cayo Jutias but as we strolled to the sea, a security official told us that access to the shore was “suspended.” The authorities had sealed the coastline in case Castro’s death inspired another mass exodus of Cubans to Florida. We headed back to Havana.

The next morning I was woken at 6am by a violent boom. My first instinct was that the counter-revolution had finally begun. But no: it was a canon shot from the Morro castle on the other side of Havana bay, to mark the cremation of Castro’s body. The canon was fired every hour on the hour for the next five days, a constant soundtrack of lamentation.

I met Magdalay and her uncle Pedro, 53, a teacher, in the Plaza de la Revolucion to join tens of thousands of Cubans in paying our last respects to his ashes. We stood in a hour-long line to sign a book that I later discovered was “a solemn oath… to be faithful to the concept of the Commander-in-Chief’s Revolution.”

We then had to wait in another hour-long line to climb the steps of the José Martí monument and then file past another print of the Korda photograph of Castro and an honor-guard of uniformed soldiers while a petty official ordered us: “Move along! Faster! Faster!”

There was no sign of Castro’s ashes. It was now nearly four days since his death and I had still seen no tears or weeping.

I came back to the Plaza that evening to take part in “El Acto” – a mass wake. A huge crowd of around 750,000 mourners assembled, including a surreal menagerie of sketchy leaders including Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe and Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams. The event began with the reading of a poem that culminated with the crowd repeatedly answering a call to roar out one word: “Fidel!” I felt goosebumps all over my body.

Fidel’s canonization continued in the Plaza, as fellow socialist and Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega repeatedly asked the crowd:“Where is Fidel?”

“Here!” replied the people in unison.

The crowd then spontaneously chanted “I am Fidel! I am Fidel!” Evoking the mourning after the Charlie Hebdo horrors, it was an awe-inspiring moment of solidarity.

“It hurts,” Ortega continued. “Of course it hurts – this transition… this transition to immortality!”

The crowd, including me, applauded passionately. I have never enjoyed the opium of the masses more than that moment.

But the rush wore off fast. Ortega started rambling about “comrade Salvador Allende”, and mixed up his facts to the point where both Raul Castro and Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro were correcting his dates. As he started to rant about vote-rigging in capitalist countries, he began to sound like the demented despot in Gabriel García Márquez’s Autumn of the Patriarch.

Standing beside me was a group of medical students from the University of Havana. Laura, 24, complained that Ortega was “very slow”. She switched her attention to her Android phone and a puzzle video-game called ‘2048’, which required her to move numbered tiles around until they spelled out 2048.

By the time Laura had completed that task, President Maduro was telling a long story about how, two years ago, Fidel had told him and Bolivian President Evo Morales that he would die aged 90, and that he had told Fidel not to die and Fidel had told him, ‘Evo, Maduro, I’ve done everything I’ve had to do, now it’s up to you.”

Maduro told “the Cuban youth that it was now up to them” but Laura was not inclined to accept that anything was really up to her to do and moved apps on her phone to Zapya, a Bluetooth networking app which let her exchange photos and messages with other millennials in the Plaza.

One of Laura’s friends whispered to her. “My knees are hurting, let’s get out of here.” Laura shook her head, shocked:“Of course we can’t leave, Raul hasn’t even spoken yet. We could get into big trouble.”

But although the internet was teeming with celebrations of Fidel’s death by enemies ranging from President-elect Trump to most of the two-million-strong Cuban community in Miami, I never heard any expression of happiness, or even any joke, about Castro’s demise while in Cuba.

This was partly because of a genuine respect for the dead and for Castro in particular; but also because freedom of speech is so restricted. Cuba has no First Amendment, and offers no job vacancy to Jon Stewart.

There is no free press in Cuba. The state newspaper Granma remains a travesty of journalism. Foreign correspondents are carefully monitored. I have to write this piece under a pseudonym.

Censorship is also rife in academia. A psychologist who centered her doctorate on female sexuality discovered the most popular sexual fantasy amongst Cuban women aged 35-60 was having a beard between their thighs. Her supervisor forced her to change her entire thesis because her central finding showed “disrespect for the Commander in Chief”.

The morning after I went down to the Malecón to watch what the state media was calling “the Caravan of Freedom”. The crowds lining the streets watched in silence. For the first time I saw tears. The sight of the wooden box containing his mortal remains seemed to open the floodgates of grief. Men and women wept and held each other. I had not seen such public pain since Princess Diana’s funeral nearly 20 years ago.

After the green cortege had passed, I spoke with Humberto, 39, a taxi-driver, who was there with his five-year old son, Jaime. “This is his first experience with death,” Humberto said. “He was very sad. He thought Fidel would never die. But I told him that he would continue to be a hero. He will live inside us.”

The refrain of Fidel living “inside us” was repeated constantly on Cuban TV, and was a little unsettling, with echoes of the sci-fi TV show Stranger Things, where mysterious alien creatures colonize human bodies.

It rained the following day and the city was shrouded in mist. I met up again with Magdalay on the roof of the Hotel Capri for a final, blasphemous piña colada before her return to Spain. I asked her what she thought Fidel would be doing today if he was a 30-year old with the same passion for change he had sixty years ago.

“He would have already left the country,” she replied.  Her defeatism – and that of many of her contemporaries — was saddening. It reminded me of a description of millennials in the US by Heat Street‘s Sasha Gardner, as “bland, risk-averse bores who think the same way and act – or more likely fail to act- the same way.”

The closest person to a millennial hero that I met was Ricardo, 28. Handsome, with tribal earrings in both ears, he runs an online magazine popular with millennials in Cuba and Miami and also works as a TV and film producer importing his camera equipment from New York.

He’s found a way to uphold principles of truthful expression while staying on the right side of the authorities. That means he insisted I not use his real name and refused to answer any questions about what will happen to Cuba if Raul Castro honors his promise to stand down in 2018. “Just one misplaced word could mess up a lot of things up for me,” he said.

Meantime, Fidel Castro’s long journey to eternity reached a milestone yesterday in a Santiago cemetery when his ashes were buried next to the tomb containing the remains of José Martí, Cuba’s 19th-century independence hero.