Elderly Cubans who lived through the revolution share their memories of Fidel Castro.
Santiago, Cuba – Images of Fidel Castro’s face flash on the giant screen as patriotic music plays in the background. The incessant stream of people walking along the boulevard comes to a standstill, as though time itself has stopped. Everyone looks at Fidel. An old man in a night guard’s uniform stands to attention, lifts his chin and salutes.
Along the length of the boulevard, there are five other screens. Fidel appears from them all; up close, full-length, dressed in military fatigues. Cubans and foreigners take selfies with his image.
But Fidel is no longer here. For the first time since 1959 he has left Cuba to walk alone.
Some hours remain before the caravan, which is carrying the ashes of Fidel Castro across the island, arrives in Santiago de Cuba for its posthumous farewell. After a week of solemn vigil, the tension here is palpable.
The Santa Ifigenia cemetery, where the late Cuban leader’s ashes will be interred, is patrolled by police.
Inside, workers toil under the sun – sweeping, painting, preparing. Like ants, they move constantly, side-to-side. Fidel Castro’s ashes will be entombed just a few metres away from the mausoleum of the 19th-century independence icon Jose Martí. But not even the workers know what Castro’s tomb will be like.
“They have lowered a huge stone from the Sierra Maestra on a crane, but nobody knows what it looks like because it is covered with a tarp,” explains one of the custodians, who is guarding the back entrance to the cemetery.
Julia Gonzalez lives nearby. “These works did not begin with Fidel’s death,” she explains. “This started some time ago when they began to evict the people who lived here. They took a lot of people out of their houses, so that the front of the cemetery would look good.”
A year and a half ago, Julia says the city government began to depopulate the area in front of the cemetery – run-down homes on the edge of the city’s sewage drain – to beautify the area where Fidel would be laid to rest. The drain was covered – although the smell remains – and the residents were moved to apartments elsewhere.
The only things that separate the cemetery from the poor neighbourhood of Aguero behind it are a wall and a dusty embankment. White marble angels peek over the wall. Sometimes, the cries of the bereaved drift across it.
Ninety-five-year-old Jose Perez sits in the doorway of his home, leaning on a metal cane, his gaze drifting off into his neighbourhood.
“I’m waiting for death,” he says. “I want to go to the hole already.”
After the triumph of the Cuban revolution in 1959, and the subsequent nationalisation of private enterprises, Jose lost his dry cleaning business.
“I lost my business but I’m with him [Fidel Castro] 100 percent, because that man got us out of capitalism,” says Jose, who subsequently became a carpenter and opened his own workshop. “He is the greatest thing nature has ever given.”
In street C, a pig has just been killed. Its ribs lie exposed on a sheet of iron. Two men are squeezing the animal’s intestines. A broth cooks over a low heat.
Noelvis, a 52-year-old bricklayer, lives a few metres away. He built his house himself, without any help from the state. “I have done nothing else because the government wants to extend the cemetery and has put the neighbourhood on a demolition plan,” he explains after making some coffee.
All of the other houses in Aguero are made from wood and old, rusting zinc. But not Noelvis’ house. Inside it has a wall he designed that features a scene from Havana and a fish tank embedded in the masonry.
From the roof of his house you can see the whole cemetery. Climbing up there, he says: “I feel goosebumps when I say that Fidel is dead.”
Two medical students knock on the door to ask whether there are any children living in the house and if a resident has recently had a fever. There have been cases of dengue in the neighbourhood, they explain. Outside, a woman walks by, carrying a small pig wrapped in a blanket.
This week, Santiago de Cuba is a different place during the night and the day. When it is light, everything is hustle and bustle. There are policemen everywhere and cars with loudspeakers that inform people about how they are to dress and behave when the caravan reaches the city. At the Moncada barracks, students from elementary and junior high schools practise the greetings they will give in a few hours.
State workers wear armbands commemorating the 26th of July Movement, the revolutionary movement led by Fidel.
But at night, it is as though the city is under curfew. The silence is total. There is nobody on the streets.
Twenty-one kilometres away from the centre of Santiago de Cuba, the Church of the Virgin of Charity, in the village of El Cobre, is quiet, aside from the birds that sing and the wind that rustles the leaves outside.
Candles burn, lips whisper prayers and Umberto Amaral sweeps the church floor. “The day after his death, Fidel was given a mass here,” he says.
Wilbert Moreno, who works at the church, explains: “The village has felt it. We are all very sad.”
“We agreed to do the Catholic novena, which consists of praying and massing for nine days, so that God will welcome him, reward him for all the good he has done and forgive him all the mistakes he may have made,” says Eugenio Castellano, the priest at the church.
Castellano says that Fidel never visited the church, but when he launched the revolution, his mother offered the Virgin gold statues in exchange for the safety of her three children. When Fidel was later released from prison, his mother returned to the church, leaving another gold statue, this one bearing the name of Fidel Castro Ruz.
On the outskirts of Santiago de Cuba, a small island appears in the middle of the bay. It is called Cayo Granma and is home to some 2,000 people, a shop, a restaurant, a church, a café, a dining room for the elderly and two doctors’ offices. If someone dies here, they must be taken by boat to the mainland.
In the port, Alberto Rodriguez, a Jehovah’s Witness, is waiting for a boat to take him across the Caribbean Sea to Santiago de Cuba. “Fidel is like Jesus Christ. He helped the children, the poor, the dispossessed, so I appreciate what he did for this country,” he says.
Two old men – one is 70 and blind, the other is 69 – are talking under the shade of a tree. They have lived here their whole lives, they say; it never occurred to them to leave.
“I am sure that the tranquillity here will not be found anywhere,” says the 69-year-old.
“Not because we are isolated but because we have stopped feeling it. My wife is disconsolate,” adds the 70-year-old.
Eighty-three-year-old Maria Caridad lives on the southern part of the island. “My 11 children studied thanks to the revolution,” she says. “When my son called me to tell me the news [of Fidel’s death] I could not eat during that day. I had a tremor all over my body and had to lie in bed.” She is holding her lunch – a plastic dish with rice, sweet potatoes and corn.
Her home is a dilapidated colonial mansion. The floors tremble as she walks across them, carefully avoiding the deep holes in the wooden floorboards.
“I’m not leaving here because all my ancestors are there in the cemetery. I want to be buried here,” she says.
A few metres from her house is a sign, erected a few months ago, that declares: “Happy 90th birthday Fidel!” It’s a message replicated on cartons, buildings and the walls of abandoned homes all over Cuba.