Cuba: a journey, part 3

Ashes to ashes

Over all the confusing and contradictory country of Cuba, like a fairy godfather, presides the icon of Fidel Castro Ruz, the only world leader almost universally known by his first name. That is, when he is not called El Comandante, suggesting his two most important roles: military leader of the revolution and the guy who gave orders to everyone thereafter.

When he died on Nov. 25 at the age of 90, which happened while my wife and I were in Cuba, the entire island virtually shut down for nine days of official mourning: no radio or TV except the official obituary, no drinking, dancing, singing, not even any dominoes. A party for a child’s fifth birthday was ordered canceled. It was as if the soul of Cuba had been incinerated with his ashes.

His urn toured every provincial capital in a small and stunningly modest cortege, the urn resting on a platform pulled by a jeep and accompanied by a handful of soldiers with a motorcycle fore and aft. As the cortege slowly made its way across the island, thousands gathered in every city, waiting patiently for hours, sometimes late into the night, for a last glimpse of the leader’s ashes.

He died on a Friday and the period of mourning began the next day. At 1 a.m. Saturday police invaded a disco in Trinidad that had not gotten the word and abruptly shut it down. They are nothing if not efficient.

I never saw or heard of instances of bribery, and the kind of petty extortion cops and soldiers routinely engage in on street corners and at crossroads throughout the Third World doesn’t seem to exist here. Traffic rules are enforced and obeyed. I saw police stopping a motorcyclist who failed to wear a helmet. Helmets are required everywhere. So are seat belts in cars. Speed limits and no-passing lines are followed meticulously. Even taxis come to a full stop at railroad crossings. While smoking is allowed everywhere, teens under 18 cannot buy cigarettes. There is no widespread black market, with the exception of cigars, although in three cities I was approached for black market dollars.

And yet, even in a dictatorship there are limits to efficiency. For example, local enforcement of the temporary ban on alcohol varied widely. In one place you could drink inside but not on the deck. In another no alcohol was served. In still another, there were no restrictions at all.

Buttressing the police are the ubiquitous CDR, the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution. Created to root out counter-revolutionaries in the 1960s, they have become a kind of vigilante arm of the state. Everywhere there are signs demarcating the territory or one CDR or another. Sometimes we encountered men in civilian clothes giving orders; they were probably members of a CDR.

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A platoon of soldiers on a military exercise and Cuban tourists climbing 500 steps for a sweeping vista mix it up on Loma in Holguín. Photo by Thelma Bowles.

One of the most startling scenes we witnessed was at the base of La Loma, a hillside monument with a magnificent view over the tranquil, backwater city of Holguín. The 500 steps up the hill are bordered on both sides by dense woods. A platoon of uniformed soldiers carrying automatic rifles charged up both sides of the steps firing bursts of bullets. The exercise lasted several minutes while we and the other visitors, mostly Cuban, stood with expressions somewhere between frightened and stunned.

Immediately after Castro’s death, there was speculation among some Cubans about whether there would be any changes under Fidel’s bland, diminutive younger brother Raúl. The consensus was that there wouldn’t be, and the consensus has so far been right on. A few days later, in an apparent testing of the regime, some Cubans planned a march to seek release of political prisoners. The march was banned, the organizers jailed, and for good measure, a nationwide sweep rounded up several dozen more human rights advocates and dissidents.

Although the regime is feared, Fidel at least was loved. Signs, graffiti, billboards and posters honoring Fidel were universal even before he died, when the ailing former leader had retired to a hospital bed. His partisans call themselves Fidelistas (there are no Raúlistas). Along roadsides some of those watching his cortege were shown on TV with real tears. The man was loved, although some Cubans grew impatient with his lionization. One of our hosts said, “Three days, alright, but nine days of mourning? That’s absurd.”

The myth of Fidel melts into the flesh-and-blood man who singlehandedly talked a mob of students out of a riot, who appeared at every fiesta, celebrated every birth and mourned every death, the retail politician who knew everyone and was everywhere. The photos, the videos and the billboards show him in uniform firing a rifle he hoists high over his head, or grinning benevolently as a combination of Gandhi and Christ as he pats a boy on the head. He is El Comandante who defeated Fulgencia Batista, repelled the U.S.-sponsored invasion at the Bay of Pigs and somehow survived more than half a century of conspiracies and assassination attempts.

What will Cuba be like without Fidel? I don’t think anyone knows.