2016 was a truly historic year for Cuba

Cuban's line the street as Fidel Castro's ashes pass along the main road through Las Tunas, Cuba.
Cuban's line the street as Fidel Castro's ashes pass along the main road through Las Tunas, Cuba.

The death of Fidel Castro marked the end of a truly historic year for Cuba.

After years of false rumors that he had died, the former Cuban ruler finally passed away at 10:29 p.m. Nov. 25, according to a statement read by his brother Raúl on state television. He was 90 years old.

Cuban President Raul Castro announced the death of his brother Fidel Castro on Cuban state media.

What followed showed the peculiar tastes of authoritarian regimes for state funerals.

Nine days of mourning, with a state-imposed ban on music and alcohol. Mass ceremonies in the island’s two biggest cities. Images of women crying and youths shouting “I am Fidel!” His ashes carried across the island’s main highway. People mobilized to stand along the route. And the unprecedented photos of his widow and five children, handing the urn to Raúl, who said goodbye to his older brother by tenderly tapping on the box.

The final resting place of Fidel Castro’s ashes? A niche in a controversial rock monolith that is supposed to look like a kernel of corn but has unleashed fierce criticisms of its design.

Although the death of Castro and his funeral ceremonies were extraordinary, the entire year seemed unreal, with several sensational events coming one right after the other.

Obama’s unprecedented visit

On the second day of a historic visit to Cuba, President Barack Obama met with Cuban leader Raúl Castro in a seminal moment amid the normalization of ties between the U.S. and the island nation.

No U.S. president had set foot on Cuba since 1928. Barack Obama arrived March 20, and left an indelible impression.

Obama spoke directly to the Cubans, and in a speech to an audience that included Raúl Castro urged him to not fear “the different voices of the Cuban people and their ability to talk, to gather and to vote for their leaders” — words that many Cubans must have doubted they would ever hear. In a joint news conference during the visit, a clearly upset Castro denied his government held political prisoners.

“Give me the list of those political prisoners right now and they will be released. Tell me the names, and if those political prisoners exist they will be freed before nightfall,” Castro snapped at the Cuban-American journalist who asked the question.

And if that was not enough, that same week the Rolling Stones, whose brand of rock ’n’ roll was once banned by Fidel Castro, staged a free concert in Havana for an estimated one million people.

Then came a parade of visits by presidents and prime ministers from Canada, Japan, Portugal, Iran and Vietnam; celebrities like Madonna, designer Karl Lagerfeld and the cast of the latest “Fast and Furious” movie; and nearly 500,000 U.S. residents who arrived aboard newly established commercial flights and cruises.

Raúl Castro made an official visit to France in January and scored another important point in December with a new agreement with the European Union on political cooperation and dialogue. The agreement eliminated the EU’s “common position” — which linked relations to Cuba’s human rights record — and required nothing from Cuba.

Economic downturn

But all the glamorous events and diplomatic victories did not slow the sharp decline of the economy or the colossal exodus of Cubans to other countries.

The VII Congress of the Cuban Communist Party in April disappointed many Cubans when it failed to deepen or expand the economic reforms pushed by Raúl Castro. It had been expected to also lay the groundwork for legalizing small and medium-sized enterprises by no later than 2030. But it also made it clear that Castro, who has said that he would step down as president in 2018, will stay on as head of the Communist Party to oversee the transition to a successor — if his health permits.

During the second half of the year, Cuba’s liquidity problems, cuts in oil deliveries from Venezuela and the start of payments on the massive debt owed to the Paris Club forced the government to impose quotas on gasoline and electricity and stop its payments to some of its suppliers. Food shortages increased — in part because of increased demand from tourists — and so did the shortages of medicines.

The Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, a U.N. regional body that uses figures provided by the Cuban government, reported that the island’s economy would grow by a miniscule four-tenths of 1 percent this year. Some independent analysts estimate the growth will be zero or less.

Nevertheless, and despite pleas from the White House, the Castro government did not give the green light to many of the U.S. companies that wanted to do business on the island — apparently hoping to receive even more concessions from Obama, who made warming relations with Cuba a central part of his legacy. Like almost everyone else, it did not count on the surprise outcome of the U.S. presidential election in November.

Island exodus

Facing a plunging economy, as well as increasingly worrisome questions about the future of the Cuban Adjustment Act, 50,842 Cubans without visas entered the United States from Oct. 1, 2015, until the end of August, according to figures compiled by el Nuevo Herald.

The most dramatic images were of the thousands of Cuban migrants stranded in various countries — nearly 8,000 in Costa Rica, 4,000 in Panama and 2,000 in Colombia — as they tried to move along the long land route from Ecuador to the Mexican border with the United States. The exodus sparked humanitarian and diplomatic crises, as well as criticisms of U.S. immigration policies by Central American governments.

The U.S. government did not change its migration policies on Cubans but did contribute to the maintenance and transportation of some of the stranded migrants and discreetly urged Latin American governments to tighten their own migration controls and deport Cubans to the island.

Human rights abuses

The thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations also did not stop the repression against opposition and human rights activists, and many of them publicly aired their frustrations with Obama’s policies on Cuba. Opposition activist Guillermo Fariñas spent more than 50 days on a protest fast to demand an end to the repression and the start of political negotiations. The Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation counted 9,484 arbitrary arrests for political motives in the first 11 months of 2016 — the highest number in the last seven years.

Security measures were tightened after Fidel Castro’s death, and graffiti artist Danilo “El Sexto” Maldonado was arrested when he painted Se Fue — He’s Gone — on a central Havana wall. Maldonado was still in prison as of the writing of this report.

The victory of President-elect Donald Trump, who has said that he would negotiate a better deal with Cuba or revert all of Obama’s gestures toward Cuba, added to the uncertainty at year’s end.

2017 promises to be a crucial year for Cuba.

Follow Nora Gámez Torres on Twitter: @ngameztorres