Cuba mourns death of Castro
HAVANA: Cuba mourned its revolutionary leader Fidel Castro yesterday as it prepared a four-day funeral procession for the giant figure of modern history, loved by many but branded a tyrant by others. After the stunned commotion triggered by Saturday’s announcement that Castro, 90, had died, yesterday was set to be a day of preparations ahead of a flurry of events to mark his death. Students left lighted candles next to a portrait of the black-bearded communist leader during a vigil at Havana University.
A titan of the 20th century who beat the odds to endure into the 21st, Castro died late Friday after surviving 11 US administrations and hundreds of assassination attempts. No cause of death was given. “It is a great loss. The most important thing is that he died when he chose, not when all the counter-revolutionaries wanted,” said Carlos Manuel Obregon Rodriguez, a 43-year-old taxi driver in Havana. “It may not be painful for everyone, but it is for a lot of people. I was born under this revolution and I owe Fidel a lot.”
President Raul Castro said his older brother’s remains would be cremated Saturday, the first of nine days of national mourning. There was no official confirmation of whether that had yet happened. Havana was unusually quiet after alcohol sales were restricted and shows and baseball matches suspended. No official events were scheduled yesterday but a series of memorials will begin today, when Cubans are called to converge on Havana’s Revolution Square.
“Tomorrow will be great. It will go down in history,” Obregon said. Castro’s ashes will then go on a four-day island-wide procession before being buried in the southeastern city of Santiago on Dec 4, the government said. Santiago, Cuba’s second city, was the scene of Castro’s ill-fated first attempt at revolution in 1953 - six years before he succeeded in ousting the US-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista.
Castro ruled Cuba from 1959 with an iron fist until he handed power to his brother Raul in 2006 due to his ailing health. Ordinary Cubans hailed him for providing free health and education. But he cracked down harshly on dissent, jailing and exiling opponents. Even in retirement, Castro wielded influence behind the scenes and regularly penned diatribes against American “imperialism” in the state press.
The news of Castro’s death drew strong - and polarized - reactions across the world. In Miami, just 370 km away, crowds of celebrating Cuban-Americans danced in the streets for a second night. Amid the cacophony of car horns, drums, loud music and singing in the city’s Little Havana neighborhood, a chant rang out: “Fidel, you tyrant, take your brother too!” Some two million Cubans live in the United States, nearly 70 percent of them in Florida. The vast majority of those live in Miami.
Cuban-American politicians excoriated Castro, with Florida Senator Marco Rubio calling him an “evil, murderous dictator who inflicted misery and suffering on his own people”. However, Russian President Vladimir Putin hailed Castro as “the symbol of an era,” and China’s Xi Jinping said “Comrade Castro will live forever”. There were sharply different US reactions from outgoing President Barack Obama and President-elect Donald Trump.
Obama, who embarked on a historic rapprochement with Cuba in 2014, said the US extended a “hand of friendship” to the Cuban people. But Trump dismissed Castro as “a brutal dictator”. The future of the US-Cuban thaw is uncertain under Trump, who has threatened to reverse course if Havana does not allow greater human rights.
Havana was unusually silent as the nine official days of mourning began. “What can I say? Fidel Castro was larger than life,” said a tearful Aurora Mendez, 82. She recalled a life in poverty before Castro’s revolution in 1959. “Fidel was always first in everything, fighting for the downtrodden and the poor,” she said. Indiana Valdes and her husband Maykel Duquesne, who work at a state-run bank, worried about life after Castro. “Fidel was the island’s protector, he was everywhere,” said Valdes, 43.
Fidel Castro, who came to power as a bearded, cigarchomping 32-year-old, adopted the slogan “socialism or death” and kept his faith to the end. He survived more than 600 assassination attempts, according to aides, as well as the failed 1961 US-backed Bay of Pigs invasion. His outrage over that botched plot contributed to the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, when the Soviet Union accepted his request to send ballistic missiles to Cuba. The confrontation following Washington’s discovery of the weapons pushed the world to the brink of nuclear war.
The USSR bankrolled Castro’s regime until 1989, when the Soviet Bloc’s collapse sent Cuba’s economy into free-fall. But Fidel managed to hang on, ceding power to his brother Raul in July 2006 to recover from intestinal surgery. Raul Castro has begun gradually to liberalize the economy and strengthen ties with former foreign foes. The father of at least eight children, Fidel Castro was last seen in public on his 90th birthday on Aug 13. — AFP
HAVANA: A picture of Fidel Castro and a Cuban flag decorate a home in the Cuban capital yesterday. — AP