Fidel Castro

Am I or am I not Fidel? Only Cubans know the answer

Castro ashes pass along Las Tunas

Cuban's line the street as Fidel Castro's ashes pass along the main road through Las Tunas, Cuba on Friday, December 2, 2016.
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Cuban's line the street as Fidel Castro's ashes pass along the main road through Las Tunas, Cuba on Friday, December 2, 2016.

For the past three days, the processional carrying the ashes of Fidel Castro has traversed Cuba along a route that has taken it past sugarcane fields, towering stands of palm trees, oxen working the red earth, colonial cities, and places of historic significance.

All along the way, Cubans have gathered on the sides of rural roads, on overpasses and lined urban streets to say their last good-byes to Castro, who has dominated life on this island for more than a half century and by extension life in exile.

While the mantra in Cuba has become "Yo Soy Fidel" (I am Fidel) as a trailer carrying his ashes has slowly made its way from Havana and across Central Cuba en route to Castro's final resting place in Santiago de Cuba, the cry at some anti-Castro rallies in Miami has been "Yo no soy Fidel." (I am not Fidel.)

Castro's life and death look very different, depending on which side of the Florida Straits Cubans call home.

For some in Miami, his death is a pivotal moment that they hope will unleash the forces of change and lead to a free Cuba.

“This is the moment that so many in our community have been waiting for since I can remember, since I was a child,” U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo, a Miami Republican whose parents fled Cuba, said soon after learning of Castro’s death. “Everyone’s been waiting for this moment because they believed it would be the beginning of the end of the nightmare, and I think that’s exactly what this is: the opening of a door to a brighter future.”

As many Cubans on the island continue to mourn the death of Fidel Castro, most in the exile community remain cheerful.

“We are not celebrating one man’s death, but the death of an ideology,” said Carlos López, 40, who took his 12-year-old daughter, Tiffany, out in the middle of the night to take part in the exile euphoria. “We are celebrating that little piece of liberty we got back.”

On the island, in the nine days since Castro's death was announced on Nov. 25, there has been calm, and little sense of anxiety or sentiment that Cuba is on the cusp of change.

Even though Castro had been ailing for some time and ceded power to his brother Raúl — first temporarily and then officially — a decade ago, many Cubans still said their former leader's death caught them by surprise.

"Everyone knew he was sick, but no one thought his death would be so precipitous," said Tania Pérez, 48, who manages a vegetable warehouse in Ranchuelo, a town in Central Cuba. "But I don't think there will be changes here in Cuba. The government has been preparing for this for quite some time."

Still, she said, a Cuba without Fidel Castro will take some getting used to. "He might not have been here as a physical presence but Cubans always knew he was here," Pérez said.

"The Cuban people are always ready for whatever comes," said Angel Ysern, a doctor who lives in Santa Clara. "But we want peace, tranquility — not aggression. The Cuban Revolution has some things that need to change, but let's keep the good things and get rid of the bad things."

The Cuban Revolution has some things that need to change, but let's keep the good things and get rid of the bad things.

Angel Ysern, Santa Clara

On Friday, the caravan carrying Castro's remains left Camagüey and began traversing cities and towns across Eastern Cuba.

Some farm workers perched on tractors to get a better view, groups of doctors and nurses in their whites sat together along the caravan route, people brought their babies, and teenagers sported headbands saying, "Yo Soy Fidel."

Thousands of people from more distant points were trucked and bused into areas along the caravan route, and motorists who found themselves behind the caravan have been trapped in traffic jams for hours.

But after the Castro processional passes, people have quickly gone back to their everyday routines, minus a little joie de vivre. Beer and alcohol sales have been banned during a nine-day mourning period, entertainment venues have been closed and cultural events canceled.

At an outdoor restaurant in a Santa Clara park that advertises beer and Creole food as "the perfect play," only a single table was occupied by a few men playing dominoes.

In the wake of Castro's death, there's been a notable increase in security. Near the entrance to Las Tunas, security forces were posted every 100 yards or so.

But for the most part, even those Cubans who aren't supporters and would like to see things change — especially the economy and respect for human rights — have been quiet. The Sunday after Castro's death, the Ladies in White opposition group canceled their long-standing protest march in Havana, not because they mourned Castro's death but out of respect for those who did, they said.

Others who say they will miss el comandante have stood along road sides for hours waiting for the caravan to pass in a matter of minutes. They have congregated before the sun is up and late into the night to say farewell.

In the town of El Perico, flowers in makeshift containers lined both sides of the street, and along the route of the caravan people hung homemade signs expressing solidarity with Castro.

In small Eastern Cuba towns Friday, the caravan became a history lesson. Thousands of uniformed students lined the streets to witness the passage of Castro's ashes and one group even brought a large model of the Granma, the ship Castro and rebels used in 1956 to return to the island from Mexico to continue the armed struggle.

Televisions in shops and restaurants have been tuned non-stop to news coverage as the caravan makes it way across the eastern half of the island.

In Central Cuba, new billboards with large portraits of Castro began appearing within days of his death, emphasizing the government's goal of continuity even though Castro himself is gone. "Hasta la victoria siempre, Fidel" (ever onward to victory, Fidel), they said.

Other sign makers have been busy communicating the idea that Castro's revolutionary ideals will live on. "Fidel continues among us," said a large wooden sign erected in Jobabito, a small town between Camagüey and Las Tunas.

And the sentiment "Fidel vive" (Fidel lives) has begun appearing in hand-scrawled signs on everything from snack stands to homes. Some people have even painted it on their foreheads.

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