“The Cuban Communist party is the only legitimate heir of the legacy and authority of the commander in chief of the Cuban Revolution, comrade Fidel Castro,” read signs at the memorial on Monday for Cuba’s ex-president, who passed away on Friday. Havana’s Revolution Square, watched over by the towering likenesses of war heroes Camilo Cienfuegos and José Martí, was filled earlier this week with thousands of Cubans waiting in long, winding lines to pay tribute at the memorial. Fidel Castro, a dictator who had promoted public health and education but tolerated absolutely no dissidence, was beloved and detested probably in equal parts. But there has been little celebration of the dictator’s death in Cuba, whose official period of mourning will last a full nine days. This week, a 21-gun salute, the thundering of cannons from across the bay in Havana’s El Morro fort, ringing speeches of leaders such as president Raúl Castro, and passionate chants of Fidel’s name filled an otherwise quiet and subdued capital city. The government has temporarily prohibited alcohol sales and put the professional baseball season on hold. Flags throughout the country fly at half-mast.
The international reaction is, of course, to ask what is going to change now that Fidel can no longer influence national politics. Technically, Fidel has been out of power since 2008, when he formally stepped down from a 49-year-long presidency and ceded power to his younger brother Raúl. And it is true that Raúl has been widely viewed as more practical than Fidel, implementing reforms that allowed some expansion of the non-state sector in Cuba—small and slow reforms, but reforms nonetheless. Even so, there is no question that just by being present, Fidel was, in a way, still in charge. Cuba’s official nationalist narrative, which touches every aspect of Cuban life, is based on the glories of the Castros’ Revolution of 1959 and the socialist society that they built in the years following. Fidel, along with his brother Raúl and martyr Che Guevara, was a symbol of that Revolution, the very face of Cuban pride—again, at least officially.
More than once while living in Cuba during the first four months of 2016, I myself heard something along the lines of, “Yeah, we’re always wondering whether he has actually died and they’re just covering it up. Then every once in awhile he’ll make a surprise appearance somewhere or publish an article in the Granma” (a national Cuban newspaper) “and we realize, oh, he’s still around.” Now, it’s clear that Fidel is gone. But how long the specter of his power will remain is another matter. If Revolution politics continue to dictate Cuba’s attitude, the suspicion of northern imperialism will prevent Cuba from moving forward. If not, a very fine line must be walked between the building of healthy commercial relationships with the U.S. and the takeover of the Cuban economy by U.S. transnationals.
As it stands now, most speculation about Cuba’s future is still just that: speculation. After the recent turning points in Cuban history—Raúl’s assumption of the presidency in 2008 and U.S. President Obama’s restoration of diplomatic relations between the two countries in 2014—the situation was already uncertain. Now that Donald Trump has been elected president of the U.S. and Fidel has passed away, both within such a short time, everything is more or less up in the air. After Trump threatened in a tweet to “terminate the deal” if “Cuba is unwilling to make a better deal for the Cuban people, the Cuban/American people and the U.S. a whole,” commentators have wondered whether 2017 will see a reversal of the initiatives on the part of the Obama administration to normalize economic and political relations between the U.S. and Cuba. For any concrete outcome, it is too soon to tell.
Meanwhile, Cubans grieve—or breathe a sigh of relief. During my time in Cuba, I met no shortage of people, mostly young adults, who I expect felt only positive emotions upon hearing of Fidel’s passing. Even so, many Cubans are genuinely distraught over the loss of a man they see as a father figure, a protector, a friend. One woman told Reuters, “Everything we have, my education as a doctor, it’s thanks to him.” Another told The Guardian, “I owe my entire life to him…I was able to study thanks to him.” The only thing we can be sure of now is that Cubans and the Cuban spirit will persevere through whatever challenges come their way. “Here we are in National Mourning, but we are okay,” a friend of mine told me when I reached out to him to ask about the situation. “Cuba is calm and will continue forward.”
Acosta, Nelson, and Sarah Marsh. “‘Viva Fidel!’: Tens of thousands pay last respects to Cuba's Castro.” Reuters. 29 Nov. 2016. Web. 30 Nov. 2016.
Gaouette, Nicole. “US-Cuba cold front expected under Trump.” CNN. 29 Nov. 2016. Web. 30 Nov. 2016.
“How Fidel Castro’s death marks a new era for Cuba.” PBS News Hour. 28 Nov. 2016. Web. 30 Nov. 2016.
Watts, Jonathan. “Fidel Castro memorial service: crowds gather as dignitaries pay tribute.” The Guardian. 29 Nov. 2016. Web. 30 Nov. 2016.
“What Fidel Castro's death means for future of Cuba.” CBS News. 28 Nov. 2016. Web. 30 Nov. 2016.