Quiet resignation and muted emotion seeped across this city Saturday as Cubans began to come to terms with the death of former strongman Fidel Castro.
Flags across the island flew at half-staff in memory of the island’s longest-ruling leader.
Although Cubans are usually quite vocal — and no longer hesitate to complain about food prices they see as too high, or about the trials of daily life — few wanted to speak publicly about the death of a man who ruled Cuba for nearly half a century.
“We’ve been expecting this for over a decade,” a middle-aged tour guide said. She, like most others, declined to give her name. “For almost 10 years, [Fidel’s] been out of the public eye, so for us it’s always been a matter of when and not if. In fact, for years, we always joked that he is probably already dead.”
In Havana, most Cubans calmly went about their daily business or just stayed home. The iconic street squares were eerily still, devoid of the heavy foot traffic normally found on a Saturday afternoon.
Clubs and other entertainment venues were closed or empty. The sale of alcoholic beverages was prohibited. Music that usually blares from car radios, bars and restaurants was silenced, and many of the brightly colored vintage cars that squire tourists around Havana were parked.
The one exception: the Museum of the Revolution in Old Havana, which was packed.
There were no organized public displays of mourning, although official events are scheduled to begin on Monday. However, students and other mourners gathered on the steps of the University of Havana where a makeshift memorial was set up.
Students at the university, Castro’s alma mater, held a giant Cuban flag aloft. Others shed tears as they held portraits of a man they knew as “El Comandante.”
“Because your people love you, they weep for you,” the government run Granma newspaper posted on Twitter with photos of the university students.
In Matanzas, just east of Havana, one resident described the mood as one of “total tranquility — not even a fly buzzes.”
In the far eastern city of Santiago de Cuba, where Castro launched the revolution, the mood was much the same. But several residents there also described stepped-up security in the city where Castro will be laid to rest on Dec. 4 at the Santa Ifigenia Cemetery.
Save for the fact that some have taken the news as another excuse for skipping work, it looks as if nobody dares express true feelings openly.
The Rev. Luis del Castillo
“Save for the fact that some have taken the news as another excuse for skipping work, it looks as if nobody dares express true feelings openly,” said the Rev. Luis del Castillo, a retired Uruguayan Catholic bishop who now tends to the flock at Sacred Family Church in Santiago. “Everyday activities seem to go on very carefully as usual except that police are more visible in public buildings and flags are at half staff.”
In Baracoa, also in eastern Cuba, a young biologist said that a sense of fear was prevalent.
“People won’t even talk about what has happened,” he said.
Cubans’ feelings toward Castro are complicated, and for some, the first day without him was unknown territory.
While some Miami exiles expressed hope that Castro’s death would serve as a decisive moment and a turning point in the history of Cuba, many on the island saw things differently.
“For us, nothing really changes,” said a 52-year old baker who was visiting the capital city from the western provinces. “It’s more of the same. We continue to struggle but find ways to keep going to do what we need to do.”
Special contributor Miguel Piedra reported from Havana. Cuba correspondent Mimi Whitefield reported from Miami with contributions by Abel Fernández and Mario J. Pentón.