He was a master of stagecraft until the end.
Fidel Castro’s death, announced Friday night, came on the same day in 1956 — Nov. 25 — when he, his brother Raúl, Che Guevara and 79 other revolutionaries boarded a decrepit cabin cruiser in Mexico under the cover of darkness and headed to Cuba to resume the armed struggle against the Batista dictatorship.
Most of the revolutionaries aboard the Granma vessel were quickly killed after making landfall in Cuba. But Fidel, Raúl and Che, who holed up in the Sierra Maestra, waged a guerrilla campaign that ousted Batista and propelled Fidel to power and gave him absolute control.
And it is Castro’s past as a revolutionary firebrand that will figure heavily in Cuba's plans to mark the passing of the man who loomed larger than life in Cuban politics for more than six decades and inspired passion — both admiration and revulsion.
Although many Cuban exiles, who took to the streets of Miami late Friday and Saturday, to celebrate the demise of the dictator, would have preferred a different, perhaps more violent denouement to the life and times of Fidel Castro, in death his timing was also impeccable.
He survived until his 90th year — something he called “a whim of fate,” rather than anything he himself was responsible for, and lived to see the special tributes and historical events that were carried out for an entire year leading up to his Aug. 13 birthday.
He even managed to say farewell to the nation during the Cuban Communist Party’s VII Congress in April, when he addressed the gathering in a faltering voice: “Soon I will be like everyone else. We all face the same fate. … This may be one of the last times I speak in this hall.”
“It's a shame that Fidel died peacefully in a bed without being tried for all the crimes he committed against the Cuban people,” Felix Rodriguez, 75, said on Saturday in Miami. Rodriguez, a Bay of Pigs veteran, helped in the 1967 capture of Guevara, who was subsequently executed in Bolivia.
“Unfortunately, at this point, power has been consolidated by his brother. There won't be a big change in Cuba; I wish this had happened years ago. But it's the death of an evil man,” Rodriguez said.
Castro also lived long enough to see a rapprochement between the United States and Cuba — although he was lukewarm to the process.
President Barack Obama, who met Raúl Castro but not Fidel, during his March visit to Cuba — the first by a U.S. president since January 1928, offered his condolences to the Castro family: “Our thoughts and prayers are with the Cuban people. In the days ahead, they will recall the past and also look to the future.
“At this time of Fidel Castro’s passing, we extend a hand of friendship to the Cuban people,” the president said. “We know that this moment fills Cubans — in Cuba and in the United States — with powerful emotions, recalling the countless ways in which Fidel Castro altered the course of individual lives, families, and of the Cuban nation,” Obama said. “History will record and judge the enormous impact of this singular figure on the people and world around him.”
History will record and judge the enormous impact of this singular figure on the people and world around him.
President Barack Obama
Health permitting, Castro tried to stay politically engaged until the end. As recently as mid-November he met with Vietnam's President Tran Dai Quang in Havana and in recent months received other world leaders.
Castro was to be cremated Saturday, according to his wishes, said Raúl Castro, who announced his brother’s death to the nation in a national TV broadcast around midnight that lasted just over a minute.
The government declared nine days of mourning that began at 6 a.m. Saturday and will continue until noon on Sunday, Dec. 4 when Castro’s ashes will be buried at Santa Ifigenia Cemetery in Santiago de Cuba, “the heroic city” and so-called “cradle” of the Cuban Revolution.
Many Cubans were unaware of Castro’s passing at 10:39 p.m. until they awoke to the news Saturday morning.
“Santiago is sleeping. The majority of Santiagueros that woke up with hunger and fatigue didn’t know about the death of Fidel Castro,” said José Daniel Ferrer, the leader of the dissident group Unión Patriótica de Cuba. “Besides, he has been thought to be dead so many times.”
In an early morning conversation with el Nuevo Herald, he said he feared more repression against dissidents.
As condolences poured into Cuba from world leaders, many evoked Castro’s revolutionary past.
“He embodied the Cuban Revolution,” said French President François Hollande.
His ashes will be placed in the Plaza of the Revolution in Havana where Cubans will be able to pay their respects on Monday and Tuesday, and on Wednesday the ashes will begin a journey that along the same path of the 1959 Caravana de La Libertad when Castro and the revolutionaries marched in triumph from eastern Cuba into the capital.
But this time, the caravan will take Castro’s remains back to where it all started.
“Hasta la victoria siempre,” Raúl Castro said during his announcement to the nation. (Onward to victory, always.)
The ashes will end up in Santiago de Cuba on Dec. 3 where a mass gathering is planned for the population at the Antonio Maceo Plaza. His ashes will be interred the next day at 7 a.m.
As news of Castro’s death spread, reaction was more swift on social media that on the streets of Cuba.
“Many in Havana still don’t know, the streets vacant, in my building... silence,” Cuban blogger Yoani Sánchez, who directs the independent digital news site 14ymedio, commented on Twitter.
Charlie Serrano, a Chicago businessman who has been taking political and business groups to the island for the past 24 years, said it was a quiet Saturday morning in Havana, in contrast to the raw emotion on display in Miami.
“It was a typical Saturday morning, very calm. People were going about their business, but they weren’t gathering in the streets. You could tell they were aware that something had happened,” Serrano said by phone from Havana.
There was no music playing — the usual backdrop of life in Havana — no light-hearted banter, he said.
Havana’s José Martí International Airport was operating normally and flights heading to Cuba from Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport were leaving on time Saturday morning. Regularly scheduled service to Havana from Miami International Airport will begin Monday but charter flights to and from Cuba were operating normally.
Serrano saw off a group of American educators at the Havana airport Saturday. He said the mood was subdued but nothing out of the ordinary was going on. He said it appeared the Cuban state was making an effort so that Castro’s death wasn’t disruptive. “I think that is the way that Fidel Castro would have wanted it to happen.”
Seventeen-year-old Maria Ricardo, of Tampa, returned on one of the charters Saturday morning after visiting her aunt on the island. She told the Miami Herald the streets in Cuba were quiet when she left.
She woke up to the news on the radio. “My aunt was crying uncontrollably; that's always been her president,” said Ricardo. “They played Castro's favorite songs, really sad music.”
Many of the passengers arriving in Miami from Cuba didn’t want to talk about Castro’s death.
“We're not supposed to talk about this,” one man said. “At the airport in Havana people were quiet and hushed. I found out by the taxi-cab driver who told me to keep my reaction to myself. We aren't allowed to speak our minds there, but just know that I am the happiest man alive.”
Another passenger questioned the euphoria being expressed in Miami. “He is a human being. Why would we ever celebrate someone's death. No matter if they're your enemy?”
The Coast Guard in Miami said the agency had not implemented any extraordinary measures in the wake of Castro’s death or seen any evidence of a sudden Cuban migrant exodus.
“There is nothing out of the normal parameters,” said Jonathan Lally, a Coast Guard spokesman. “We are continuing our mission, interdicting migrants. We haven't changed our mission.”
Monroe County’s Emergency Management also was monitoring the situation in Cuba because Key West sits just 90 miles from Cuba and has experienced waves of Cuban migrants in the past. Director Marty Senterfitt said Saturday that there were no indications of a mass migration underway nor any expectations that one would occur.
Miami Herald staffers Monique O. Madan and Luisa Yanez and el Nuevo Herald staffers Nora Gámez Torres and Alfonso Chardy contributed to this story.