Thursday, February 16, 2017

Personal Witness The Passing of Fidel

The Passing of Fidel
    by John McAuliff

After consulting Cuban friends upon hearing of Fidel Castro’s death, I made a last minute decision to fly to the island on the inaugural non-stop flight by Jet Blue from JFK to Havana.  (This would have been impractical to arrange so spontaneously and prohibitively costly before President Obama’s authorization of commercial flights and of the individual general license.)
Greeting the inaugural JFK-Havana Jet Blue flight

I wanted to witness and share a singular moment of Cuban history, without the filter of either country’s politicized media.   Much of the US press and political leaders seemed determined to wrap Fidel's death in every negative aspect of his domestic history and of his conflict with Washington.   So much for not speaking ill of the dead.  For Cuba and a large part of the globe, the passing of a larger than life hero dominated coverage and reminiscences.

I have never been an uncritical advocate of Fidel.  He did not shape my existence as he did all Cubans, for better or ill.  But his presence and his revolution has touched virtually my entire life starting with senior year of high school in Indianapolis (1959-60).  Agree with what he did or not, he was a defining figure of the second half of the 20th century, particularly in third world nations and for those engaged with them via the Peace Corps and study abroad.   

An organized contingent at the mass event in Havana
Cuba was serious about mourning, and presumably had been preparing for it since life threatening illness forced Fidel’s retirement a decade ago: no public performances; no music outside the home and even there restrained; no sales of alcohol; full immersion TV, radio and print coverage of Fidel’s public life and of the county’s revolutionary history.  The passage of the funeral cortege from Havana to Santiago consumed TV, radio and press.  The best social parallel I could think of, albeit not in the context of modern media, was of the train taking Lincoln’s remains home to Illinois. 

Friends at the mass event in Havana
I was most involved with the grieving population during the mass events at the revolutionary squares in Havana and Santiago and on the first and last days of the cortege procession.  (They were personally linked by the adventure of a 14 hour overnight ride in a Viazul bus.)   I was not an official or invited guest so went on my own with Cuban friends.

Cuba excels at mass mobilizations (as with mass evacuations from hurricanes) and certainly part of the outpouring was organized from schools, workplaces and neighborhoods.  But I heard several times that no one was obligated to participate.  As I walked to and from public events, I saw people who did not feel obligated to leave their neighborhoods or even to watch the ceremonies on television.

Certainly the crowds I joined were of all ages and reflected the diversity of the country.  Couples, families and groups of friends were common.  For most people it was a solemn occasion, even, although not commonly, to the outpouring of tears.  Hours of waiting culminated in the momentary passing of Fidel’s ashes carried on a small trailer behind a military jeep.  At the end, the view was often limited because of the turnout.

The mass events were political rallies.  In Havana’s Plaza of the Revolution foreign heads of state and President Raul Castro spoke.  The most appreciated were the demeanor and words of the Presidents of Ecuador and Bolivia; less so were the appearances of their counterparts from Nicaragua and Venezuela.  Leaders of long time friends like South Africa, Vietnam and Brazil spoke but no one from Europe or North America.

Waiting for the cortege on Paseo in Havana
The comparable event in Santiago featured speeches by the heads of Cuba’s mass membership organizations such as the Women’s Federation, the Association of Small Farmers and the Student Federation.  Only President Raul Castro spoke on behalf of the government and the Communist Party.  He summarized Fidel’s historical achievements and his determination that no monuments were to be erected or streets named in his honor.

On the whole participants listened quietly and respectfully.  Families and groups of teenagers on the periphery sometimes conversed quietly among themselves.  In response to speakers there were chants of Viva Fidel, Yo soy Fidel (“I am Fidel”) and rhythmically “Raul, amigo, el pueblo esta contigo”.  (“Raul, friend, the people are with you.”  Its rhythm was the same as the Chilean chant, “El pueblo unido jamas sera vencido”.)

After the event, thousands kept vigil in Santiago’s Plaza of the Revolution.  The interment of the ashes the next morning was limited to family members, high officials and foreign leaders.  They passed by the site, pausing momentarily and leaving a flower, the process broadcast on national television.  Almost immediately after that was over, a spontaneous stream of mourners began to pay personal respects at the tomb.  Fidel’s modest resting place, near the ornate international monument of Jose Marti, will be a long term domestic and international attraction.  (A friend just wrote, “there are many visitors going to Fidel's tomb, Cubans and foreigners, and still receiving official personalities.”)
The cortege arrives in Santiago
During the two weeks I was in Cuba, I found many opportunities to speak with friends and strangers about their personal reactions to Fidel’s death and the national mourning.
A prominent writer in Cienfuegos who is in regular dialog with local dissidents recounted how they had asked his assistance to be able to join the crowd honoring the passing of Fidel’s ashes.  Being known in the community, they hesitated to go lest it be thought they were there to protest.  However, they distinguished between their sorrow about the death of Fidel and their opposition to communism.   Following my friend’s assurance, they took part without incident.
A response to the cortege arrival
A 28 year old primary school teacher and singer in Santiago told me her sadness had grown as the mourning period progressed.  A veterinary student on the bus from Santiago for a conference said she had learned things about her country’s history from the TV coverage.  The owner of a bed and breakfast in Santiago expressed fear about what Fidel’s absence might mean for the future of the country.  Women in their 20s at a disco in Cienfuegos, recently reopened, spoke of how strongly they felt when the cortege came through the city.

Of all my interlocutors, only one expressed skepticism about how people really felt and ascribed some of the turnout to social and political pressure.

Unquestionably Cuba’s leaders orchestrated a well prepared national response to Fidel’s death that benefited from their total control of mass media and public forums.  However, they built on a real emotional and social foundation.  As frustrated as many Cubans are by the uneven and slow process of economic and political reform, most seem genuinely convinced that Fidel’s vision and determination inspired and protected their unique revolution and helped make them who they are.

Now that Fidel is no longer injecting his skeptical views about US goals through articles in Granma, conservatives cannot make him a rallying point for resistance to change.  Nor can they easily challenge the moral authority of Raul as the repository of his brother’s legacy.
The mass event in Santiago
Not surprisingly even after death Fidel is an omnipresent heroic figure in Cuban media, providing a focus for national identity during a period of ideological contradiction and change.  However, he is very seldom mentioned in the US media.  Hopefully the spasm of mainstream resurrected outrage attending his passing cleared the way for a more rational US approach to the country he shaped.

It is hard to know how much Fidel’s excesses were inherent in his personality and ideology, and how much were reaction to unrelenting hostility from an inescapable super-power neighbor aspiring to restore economic and political dominion.  In any case the histories and cultures of our peoples are forever intertwined, with the memory of Fidel a touchstone of hopefully diminishing differences.


A poster for sale in the Plaza de Armas, Havana
all photos by John McAuliff

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