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Postcard from Cuba: Locals react to Fidel Castro’s death

© Marion Ries

Text by Marion RIES

Latest update : 2016-11-28

Almost nothing in Havana Saturday night disclosed that the country was mourning the passing of a historic leader. And just a few days earlier, a tour guide had told tourists that it was hard to imagine exactly how the event would play out.

But in those streets that were usually vibrant with music, there was one sign business was not quite as usual. In these venues where people dance or play music on weekends, the bars and restaurants were unusually silent. In the heart of the old city, the gate of the historic hotel Florida, where just a week prior Cubans and foreigners alike were lining up to drink and dance in the bar, was noticeably quiet.

Flags were flown at half-mast in the city and in other places around the country. But Cubans seemed to get on with their daily life as if nothing major had happened. Couples on the long Havana avenue known as the Prado were sitting at dusk on benches, listening to music on boomboxes and sipping beer in plastic cups. Elderly men were playing chess on the side, as others were playing dominoes in a nearby street. On one of the narrow streets of the old city, a dozen or so of people were clustered around an open window, peering inside a private house where a clown entertained children who were laughing and shrieking in delight.

On Sunday morning, a 40-year-old woman told a tourist: "Today things are happening within families. It is a day of sadness. If I need to get education, or if I need medical care, I can get it for free. And that is thanks to Fidel."

© Marion Ries

A few public buildings sported Cuban flags and by the Museum of the Revolution a gigantic picture of Fidel Castro hung from the facade of the headquarters of the Young Communist League. Just up the road, by the flame of the Granma Memorial honouring heroes of the revolution, a lone worker applied final layers of tar to a stretch of road that had been under construction for over a year and a half.

In front of Havana University, two dozen youth appeared with a Cuban flag and raised fists. The name "Fidel" was written on their forearms. They said they supported the revolution, Fidel Castro's legacy and Raul Castro's actions.

© Marion Ries

Back in one of the old city's parks, a father of two in his thirties was more measured in his opinions. Sitting near a pushchair and with his eight-year-old on a bench in the shaded park of Plaza de Armas, he was feeding his seven-month-old baby with a bottle. He agreed to chat with a tourist in search of a newspaper. As to what he thought of the days' events, he said: "It is a change. There have been other changes. There will be more changes. The Russians changed things abruptly. Things are changing more smoothly here, and that is better."

How far the country has moved from socialism since Raul Castro in 2010 allowed private businesses to operate was measurable just a few steps away. For several years now, booksellers around the plaza have been offering a variety of revolutionary literature and posters displaying socialist slogans and images that for years had aimed to inspire the country. One of the stalls displayed Saturday issues of Granma, the official newspaper of Cuba's Communist party. Its front page, perhaps transformed overnight into a collectable item, announced Castro's death under his signature slogan, "Hasta la Vitoria Siempre" (Towards Victory, as Ever").

Asked how much they cost, the owner of the stall quoted a price of 10 convertible pesos (CUC) a piece – 250 times the official issue price of one local peso (one convertible peso is worth 25 pesos of the local, non-convertible currency).

A Cuban gentleman later said people selling newspapers at a profit were "thieves" abusing the system. However, when tourists laughed at the outrageous price, the seller replied, "I'm not worried, tomorrow a big boat is coming with Americans, and the gringos will pay no problem with their dollars." A tourist responded, "So that's what it has come down to, like in 1950: gringos, dollars, and all is said and done? So the revolution is really dead, isn't it?"

Several sellers gathered around the stall smiled and shrugged. They did not respond.

Date created : 2016-11-28

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