Fidel Castro was finally laid to rest on Sunday, buried in the city where his revolution begun.
Castro, who died on November 25 at the age of 90, chose his burial site with care. He wanted to be next to independence hero Jose Marti, whose 24-meter-high mausoleum contains his ashes placed on handfuls of earth taken from every country in Latin America. Marti’s tomb is positioned in such a way that it is never in the shadows; a sunbeam constantly falls on it, throughout the day.
Castro now also lies in the same site as Carlos Manuel de Céspedes – a Cuban plantation owner who freed his slaves and made the declaration of Cuban independence in 1868, sparking the first of three wars to shake off the Spanish rulers. Compay Segundo, the musician made famous through Buena Vista Social Club, is nearby, and many of the elegant marble vaults contain the remains of Bacardis – the rum family from Santiago, whose empire was confiscated by Castro in 1960.
The dawn ceremony was a simple affair – Castro’s widow Dalia Soto del Valle, his brother, President Raul Castro, and several of his nine known children were at the graveside.
On the eve of the burial, Mr Castro, 85, addressed the tens of thousands of flag-waving Cubans in Santiago’s main plaza and announced that he would enact a law banning the naming of sites in his brother’s honour.
“Until the moment he died, Fidel was against the cult of personality,” said Mr Castro, flanked by the presidents of Venezuela and Bolivia, and with Brazil’s former presidents Luiz Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff seated nearby.
“There will be no monuments, statues or busts of Fidel, no institutions or streets or parks named after him – because that is what he wanted.”
But there was little doubting the strength of emotion surging through the streets of Santiago.
Castro’s remains arrived in the city on Saturday, at the end of a four-day journey retracing the route of his 1959 victory march from Santiago to Havana.
As the convoy crossed the country, the 1,000 reporters following the procession asked repeatedly: “what happens next?”
Ever the wily strategist, Castro realised that dying in office would leave a legacy of chaos. So eight years ago he handed over to his younger brother Raul.
The structure is firmly in place – crucially, the military, which is believed to control 65 per cent of Cuba’s economy, is loyal. Mr Castro has said he will step aside in 2018; the current favourite to succeed, Miguel Diaz Canel, is seen as being highly unlikely to usher in multiparty democracy or profound reform.
Most Cubans gave the same answer: nothing will change. We are all Fidel. But probe a little deeper, and get to know people better, and gradually their hopes for a better life were revealed.
Santiago, the end of the journey, is known as being the most passionately pro-revolution city; it was forged in the Sierra Maestra mountains which ring the city.
Adela Marquez, 82, was living in the hills during the war, and opened her house to the guerrillas – hiding them, cooking for them, repairing their uniforms.
“Fidel was the best thing that ever happened to Cuba,” she said, sitting on the steps of her home in the centre of the 500-year-old city of Santiago. “He gave us everything.”
Outside the city, as the cortege was edging closer, Daysi de la Caridad, nine, and her brother Gilberto, ten, stood waving flags, yelling excitedly: “Yo soy Fidel!” – I am Fidel.
Their mother and grandmother broke into loud sobs. “For us, he will never die,” said Maria de la Caridad, overcome.
Before Santiago, the convoy passed through the historic battle site of Santa Clara – Castro’s ashes staying the night in the mausoleum of Che Guevara, reuniting the two guerrilla fighters for one final time.
Santos-Ignacio Fondot, 85, and his 83-year-old wife Miguelina Aranda Perez could barely stand still for the excitement of seeing Castro’s cortege.
“We are so proud he’s coming here,” said Mrs Aranda. “For whatever remains of my life, I will fight to uphold this revolution.”
But further west, away from the hardcore revolutionary heartlands, perhaps there is more hope for a different course. Diplomats based in Havana agree that change, if it comes, is likely to come from Washington rather than Havana.
Donald Trump has promised to reverse President Barack Obama’s policy of rapprochement. Given the business interests at stake, he appears unlikely to unpick it totally – but a freezing of progress is widely expected.
And in Havana, from where the convoy set out on Wednesday, millions had lined the streets to wave their flags and cheer on cue. Factories and schools shut; buses commandeered to take the people to perform their civic duty.
“Viva Fidel!” they chanted obediently, before climbing back on their buses and going home.
The iron grip with which the brothers have ruled the country remains as strong as ever. The Committees for the Defence of the Revolution (CDR) – a network of informants in every building, every block – keeps the people in line. People are perhaps freer to speak, and complain about the economic hardships caused by the embargo and US policy – but no one will ever openly criticise the Castros.
Ariel and Tomas run an art gallery, selling modern works by up and coming Cuban artists to the hoardes of tourists who now throng the city’s elegantly decaying streets. The warehouse would not be out of place in New York’s hipster enclave of Williamsburg; graffiti art hangs from washing lines strung across the beams, and screen prints are pegged to the walls.
But Ariel, 34, is frustrated.
“There is so much more we could do,” he said. “But the bureaucracy here is stifling. I want to be able to have an international bank account, and export around the world. I want to be able to travel and find new interesting artists. I want to bring creatives here to work in the studio. But I can’t.”
Sitting beside him on the over-stuffed sofa, Tomas nods.
“Something has to give. Look – we are not rebels. But we want to make a living. And maybe now Fidel’s gone, the situation will change.”
See video here.
Harriet Alexander, The Telegraph
December 4, 2016