Fidel Castro is more of a presence in death than in recent life

Cuban school children wait for the passage of Fidel Castro's ashes outside a clinic on the route to the Moncada Barracks, in Santiago de Cuba on Saturday, December 3, 2016.
Cuban school children wait for the passage of Fidel Castro's ashes outside a clinic on the route to the Moncada Barracks, in Santiago de Cuba on Saturday, December 3, 2016.

Two months after the remains of former Cuban leader Fidel Castro were laid to rest, his voice and thoughts continue to resonate from beyond the grave.

Castro, via events in his honor and retrospectives, still makes an almost daily appearance on the front page of Granma, the Communist Party newspaper. After the recent end of the long-standing policy of allowing Cubans to enter the U.S. without visas, his thoughts on independence and self-determination were even included in the Cuban government’s Jan. 12 immigration declaration.

This, despite his final wishes — according to brother Raúl Castro — that he not did not want to be immortalized after death.

In recent years, Castro, who was 90 years old when he died and had been in ill health since he stepped down from Cuba’s presidency in 2006, had made infrequent public appearances, although his written “Reflections” still appeared in Granma from time to time.

“It doesn’t surprise me that [Castro] might be more useful in death than in life,” said Ted Henken, a Baruch College sociologist who studies Cuban society and entrepreneurship on the island. “They can trot out his legacy to justify anything that leadership might decide.”

A month after his Nov. 25 death — the cause still hasn’t been disclosed — Cuba’s National Assembly of People’s Power, its parliament, passed a law that bans statues in Fidel Castro’s image and the naming of streets, plazas, buildings or other public sites in his honor.

But apparently, the law doesn’t affect a huge neon Viva Fidel (Long Live Fidel) sign atop a building along the Almendares River. It still shines brightly every night and is clearly visible from the Malecón, Havana’s seawall and a popular gathering place. Thousands of billboards with Castro’s image and revolutionary slogans also are scattered all over the country.

In a speech the night before his brother’s ashes were interred in a granite tomb at Santa Ifigenia Cemetery in Santiago de Cuba — the cradle of the Cuban Revolution — Raúl Castro said that Fidel did not want to be immortalized with statues or have anything named after him.

“The leader of the revolution rejected any manifestation of a cult personality and was consistent with that through the last hours of his life, insisting that once dead, his name and likeness would never be used on institutions, streets, parks or other public sites, and that busts, statues or other forms of tribute would not be erected,” he said.

Castro’s ashes reside in a granite tomb that says simply “Fidel,” and during the nine days of national mourning following his death, Cubans by the thousands chanted “Yo Soy Fidel” (I am Fidel) as a caravan with Castro’s ashes moved across the country en route to Santiago.

“The mere fact that you can say Fidel and everyone knows who you are talking about means there is already a personality cult,” Henken said. “All the fundamentals of a personality cult are already in place. I guess they want to have their cake and eat it, too.”

The legislation passed by the National Assembly bars the use of Fidel Castro to “name institutions, plazas, parks, avenues, streets and other public places, as well as any type of decoration, recognition or other similar forms of homage.”

Even though posters, key chains, magnets and T-shirts with revolutionary hero Che Guevara’s bereted image are available just about anywhere tourist souvenirs are sold in Cuba, Castro’s image is not to be sullied by any publicity or commercial use.

The only exceptions allowed are the naming of an institution — some time in the future — dedicated to the study of Castro’s role in Cuban history, and using Fidel Castro as the inspiration for art, music, dance, literature or cinematic creations, according to the law.

It also notes that photos, portraits and images of Castro accumulated during his “rich revolutionary trajectory” also may be displayed. That means photos of Castro on display at Cuban workplaces will stay right where they are — and so will the billboards.

“On presenting this law that honors the memory of our historic leader, whom our people have elevated to immortality, we do this with the spirit that his example. His work and his ideals will be eternal like the stone where his ashes repose,” Homero Acosta, the secretary of Cuba’s Council of State, said during the National Assembly meeting.

The caravan carrying Castro’s ashes visited cities and small towns across the island, following the reverse of the route from Santiago to Havana that Cuban revolutionaries took on their victory march after the Jan. 1, 1959, triumph of the revolution. But this month, there has been a reprise of that reprise.

In early January, there was another re-enactment of the caravan following the original Santiago-to-Havana route.

The caravans have served to reintroduce revolutionary ideals and make them more immediate for members of the younger generation who often say they’re not interested in politics.

“The grandchildren and great grandchildren of the revolutionaries are checked out on most political things,” Henken said.

And the caravans have provided plenty of fodder for front-page stories evoking the thoughts and words of Castro:

▪ After the caravan passed through Bayamo, there was a single word headline in giant red letters stripped across the front page of the Jan. 3 edition of Granma. In a play on Fidel’s name, it read simply Fidelidad (Fidelity).

▪ On Jan. 7, there were three stories on the front page of Granma — two about Fidel Castro and another about the weather. Granma reported that in the month since Castro’s burial, 70,000 people had visited his tomb. The second story headlined “Fidel sigue regalando sueños” (Fidel keeps making dreams come true) detailed the re-enactment of the passage of the caravan on Jan. 6, 1959, through Cienfuegos, Santa Clara and Sancti Spiritus.

▪ The Jan. 9 edition of Granma had just two stories on its front. One was about the weather, and the lead story was a retrospective that began: “A week after the Jan. 1 triumph, Fidel entered victorious into Havana and history.”