Adonais Vera Suarez never wanted this moment to arrive. On November 25, the 28-year-old customs officer was watching television when her soap opera was interrupted by an announcement from President Raúl Castro: His brother Fidel, leader of Cuba’s Communist revolution and longtime president of the nation, had died at the age of 90. “I didn’t believe it,” Vera said. She cried when the news sank in. That night, she barely slept.
This past Wednesday, Vera went to Santa Clara’s Plaza de la Revolución to bid farewell to Castro’s ashes as they traveled from Havana to Santiago, retracing the steps of his famed 1959 revolutionary journey. The caravan — a few security vehicles and a pickup truck with a wooden box of Castro’s remains in its bed — stopped here for the night. Nearly a thousand gathered. They lined the road along the caravan’s route in from the west and along the plaza’s entryway, which runs toward an enormous mausoleum erected for the body of Castro’s revolutionary brother in arms, Ernesto Che Guevara. For the first time in decades, the two icons would rest side by side.
Vera wasn’t sure of a lot of things that evening: Castro’s exact cause of death, the government’s next steps. But one thing was clear: “Our comandante left us prepared for this moment,” she said. “His death makes us more unified and stronger than ever. His death changes nothing.”
In the week following the death of El Comandante, across this tiny island nation, Cubans repeated this paradox: Fidel was everything; his death means nothing. The sentiment was echoed in dozens of interviews — in cities and small towns, by the farmers who stood along the highway running through seemingly endless fields of sugarcane. That Cubans see Castro as “a father,” “an idol,” and their “soul” speaks to a precarious cult of personality that amassed around the revolutionary leader over his 47 years in power. But the second half of the statement reflects the sharpness of his political vision: Fidel Castro created a nation of people who believe that this system, for better or worse, is theirs and that it's their duty to carry it on in his absence.
There will never be an accurate count of the people who watched Fidel’s remains roll slowly by in a box draped in a flag, under glass, in the back of a pickup. Some people here said they were told to attend. There were rumors that everyone, barring a medical excuse or certain work situations, was expected to be present. New Times followed the caravan’s entire path, and it seems unlikely there were fewer than several hundred thousand who showed up.
Government pressure might have inflated the roadside numbers. But the state can’t force people to cry.
Thursday, December 1, along Cuba’s central highway, nearing Sancti Espiritus, Maritza Rodriguez Vallivian waited for the caravan at 8:15 a.m. She had awoken at 3:30 a.m. to secure a spot sitting on the side of the road. “We owe him everything,” she said, her children's schooling, free medical care, her political consciousness. She stood next to a three-by-four-foot framed poster of Fidel, brought by her tobacco factory co-workers. One had “Fidel” painted on her face. “His death affected everyone at the factory,” Vallivian said — more than those who could fit on the government busses that brought them to this crossing. It would be several more hours before the caravan would pass, and there was no shade. Outside Cuba, there was talk of Castro's death being a moment of transition for the nation, of uncertainty. Rodriguez thought otherwise. She was calm; nervousness is not a luxury the revolution can afford. “El Comandante might be gone physically, but his presence lives on in all of us,” she says. “There is no before and after.”
In Camaguey, ten hours later, the chants were deafening. “Yo soy Fidel. ¡Yo soy Fidel!” This reporter's car was a few hundred yards behind the box of ashes. In its wake, emotion spilled onto the street. “He is heard; he is felt; Fidel is here.” Fists pumped, women wailed, loved ones embraced. “Fidel! Fidel! Fidel!” On one corner, a woman in tears hyperventilated and fell to the ground.
Half an hour later, the mood was calm. Families lingered. Young children begged their parents not to take them home, not yet. Four high-school students in mustard-colored uniforms gathered on a side street. They had waited five hours in the sun and then the rain. The group rejected the notion that young Cubans were not in lockstep with the revolution. “We were not required to come,” said 17-year-old Oscar Luiz Morgado. “We came because we believe in what Fidel built.” (He was also “very excited” to have finally been so close to Fidel himself.) He and his friends wanted the social programs to continue: The four want to be doctors and are banking on free medical school. Besides that? “More of the same,” Morgado said. He was light on specifics, though a continued opening for affordable internet was on his list of priorities.
Private internet connections are banned for most Cubans. For years, the country’s few internet cafés were prohibitively expensive. Recently, the government set up public Wi-Fi hotspots in parks and squares in major cities. Morgado and his friends have Facebook accounts, which they check “all the time.”
The next day at 1 p.m. in Las Tunas, a regional capital founded in the 18th Century, Jacqueline Ayala cried and hugged her aunt Barbara. It was over. The caravan had just passed, and the two women had said goodbye. “If I hadn’t come, I would never have been able to rest well again,” Ayala said. “More than anything, this country is Fidelista. We believed in him.”
Castro earned Ayala’s devotion by building a nation that places the needs of the poor above the whims of the rich. A member of the party faithful, she doesn’t think change runs contrary to Fidel’s ideals. She’s a private tobacco farmer, planting her own crop and selling it to the state company. Hers and other small businesses are only five years old in Cuba, part of a set of economic reforms Raúl Castro put into place in 2011, three years after he took power.
Cuba’s truncated development is not a result of a rigid and outdated regime, she said, but rather a natural consequence of the 56-year U.S. economic embargo. Her nation will continue resisting, she said, regardless of what U.S. President-elect Donald Trump does. “Whenever we face uncertainty, we must follow the example of our comandante,” she said.
In Bayamo, about 50 miles to the south, the caravan entered the outskirts of the city about 7:15 p.m. The streets off the city center were dark and empty. A call went out that everyone should be in formation along the route. Compliance was expected. In one house, a TV set was tuned in to the live broadcast, but it faced an empty couch. Four people sat on the sidewalk in chairs with their backs to the coverage. They did not want to give their names. They did not want to talk. They did not want to be interviewed. They stayed home, the woman said, “because we have someone sick in the house.”
By Saturday at 1:30 p.m., the procession approached its ultimate stop in Santiago. Sergio Causel Deler sat on a rusted stool in a small café as the caravan approached. He had paid his respects earlier in the day, on the highway in a nearby town. In a corner, a small antenna TV carried the broadcast, but he averted his gaze. “If I look, my eyes fill up with tears,” he said. The 51-year-old, who walks with a cane and has a handful of missing teeth, met El Comandante once, in 1988. He had just finished his military service and could not find a job. Fidel often visited a part of Havana where Sergio hung out, and one day he had an idea. He wrote the leader of his nation a letter and handed it to him the following week. “I told him I needed a job. And I asked, 'Can you help me?'” Less than two weeks later, Causel said, someone from the state located him and gave him work at the docks near Varadero. Sergio worked there for six years before moving east. He never had a chance to thank Fidel in person, until today.
A few hours later, the last public tribute to Fidel Castro Ruz felt kind of like a rock concert. In the front of the immense plaza, hundreds of diehard fans clutched their paraphernalia — Fidel signs, posters, flags — waiting eagerly for the act to begin. Toward the back, teenagers sprawled out on picnic blankets, and adults mingled casually. The event began promptly at 7 p.m., and the crowd stood at attention. But as the half-dozen party and union leaders ran through their remarks about the revolution’s glory days, the crowd’s focus drifted back to side conversations. By the time the headliner, Raúl, took the stage, his hoarse, lackluster voice wasn't enough to win back their attention. When the national anthem played, signaling the end of the ceremony, everyone seemed captivated. Then the Fidel ballads began, and some people wept. The rest of the crowd turned to head home.
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The next morning at 7:20, Yadera Delgado Flores wiped away tears. “Now it feels real,” she said. Just outside the Santiago cemetery, where Fidel was being laid to rest by family, friends, and a handful of dignitaries, Delgado stood with her her 6-year-old son Cristo, who leaned his back against her legs. The 30-year-old lawyer placed her hands across his chest and pulled him close. “Now I feel deep pain,” she said.
It was an understated finale for one of the most polarizing figures of modern times. The government made clear that his funeral would be a private event; about a thousand gathered regardless. As the pickup truck completed its last leg, the crowd grew silent. When the entire caravan was inside the cemetery limits, the crowd mainly dispersed. Santiago residents made their way home or to work, back to life as usual, slowly.
Delgado wasn’t ready to go. She and a few hundred others remained. Over the next hour, someone would try to coax the crowd into a chant, but nothing caught on as in previous days. Mainly there was crying, hugging, and somber stares. A row of medical students holding Fidel portraits, posters, and flags was stoic, silent, and motionless.
“The soul of this nation is gone,” Delgado said, just above a whisper, as she laid her hand on her son’s small head.