I Followed Fidel Castro's Ashes as They Toured Cuba

For four days last week, a small army convoy carrying Castro's ashes zigzagged through the interior of Cuba in a symbolic reversal of the path the deceased leader took to overthrow the brutal regime of Fulgencio Batista in the 1950s.

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Dec 9 2016, 5:00pm

On Saturday, November 26, Adriana put on a black cotton dress. She had woken at 4 AM to the news that Cuba's former president and leader of the country's communist revolution, Fidel Castro Ruz, had passed away at age 90. "This is a time of great sadness. We owe him everything," said the 55-year-old on Wednesday, in the city of Ciego de Avila. Her blood pressure was up, and she'd had trouble sleeping since the weekend. As a show of mourning, she decided to wear the same outfit for days. "How can it really be that our Fidel is dead?" she pondered aloud.

All last week, Cubans reconciled with this question as their iconic leader—a man who outlived 600 assassination attempts and scores of death rumors—proved mortal after all. The government imposed a nine-day period of state mourning following Fidel's quiet passing, during which no alcohol was served, no nightclubs allowed to operate, and all television programming was devoted to him.

And they gave the people a way to say goodbye. For four days, a small army convoy carrying Fidel's ashes zigzagged its way through the interior of the island in a symbolic reversal of the path Castro's rebels took to overthrow the brutal regime of Fulgencio Batista from 1953 to 1959. Hundreds of thousands of Cubans turned out. They lined desolate stretches of highway and packed city squares. They painted their faces, waved flags, and clung to signs, posters, placards—anything that bore the image of their bearded comandante. As the rolling memorial passed, they chanted, "I am Fidel! I am Fidel!" Then, they held one another close and cried.

A Cuban woman cries as Fidel Castro's ashes pass by in Ciego de Avila, Cuba.

I traveled the route from Santa Clara to Santiago, bearing witness to the raw emotion that rippled across Cuba's countryside as the green pickup truck carrying Castro's ashes slowly approached and then faded into the distance. In some spots, the crowd made the moment into a fiery celebration of his life; in others, mourners grew somber as they watched the wooden box pass. The intensity of the procession, plus dozens of interviews, brought to the fore the strong attachment many still felt to the man who built a nation, which, for all its faults, eradicated illiteracy, built the strongest medical system in the developing south, avoided the gang violence that plagues most of Latin America , and took a half-century stand against the most powerful nation on earth.

Of course, Fidel and his regime have their detractors. But no one I spoke to, on or off the procession's route, was willing to be highly critical. Dissent in Cuba is never looked upon kindly, and this week, with the whole world watching, interviewees seemed to be choosing their words especially carefully. But while they believed in his vision, many acknowledged the need for change.

I started talking to Adriana in the black dress a few hours before the caravan rolled through her town. She offered a list of what Castro's revolution had meant for her as a single mother, highlighting the fact that her two children had completed their higher education at no cost. Adriana, who's Afro Cuban, also touted the government's work to combat the extreme racism present in Cuba before Castro took power. "He gave us blacks a place in society," she said.

Yet almost in the same breath, she offered a critique. "In Cuba, you work really hard, and you earn very little," she said. "The economy is in ruins." Adriana used to be a receptionist, but now cleans houses, making the equivalent of $20 per month. "Today my granddaughter turns three, and I did not have enough money to buy her a present," she said. (It was then that she asked I withhold her last name.)

Ana Luisa Miranda, 81, has been a volunteer policewoman for most of her adult life in Ciego de Avila, Cuba. She claims that Fidel and Che slept in the home she lives in during their revolution in the 1950s.

A few blocks away lives Ana Luisa Miranda, an 81-year-old woman who remembered giving Fidel's rebels water as they marched from the Sierra Maestra westward during the 50s. On Wednesday, she wore a green Ministry of the Interior uniform given to her by the local police department, where she's volunteered for years. "Fidel gave me this house," she said, explaining that the government had allocated the property to her family years ago. A devout party member, Miranda choked up several times as she spoke about Fidel's significance for her family and the world. Her five children had all earned post-graduate degrees, thanks to the revolution. She had no critical words about her government, but even in her house, there was evidence of a state that struggled to provide the basics for its people: Next to the bathroom there were large buckets filled with water. Miranda's neighborhood, in the historic district of one of Cuba's main cities, only gets water service every other day.

On the highway farther along toward the city of Bamayo, a 35-year-old man who I'll call Roberto wavered similarly between pride and frustration. He stood on the highway early Thursday morning with a black-and-white picture of Castro's face printed on an 8 x 11 piece of paper. He lauded Castro, who he regarded as a father, for the ideals of altruism and internationalism he instilled in his people; Roberto cried when he heard the news.

A large crowd gathered in Santiago, Cuba.

This, despite having been unable to find a job from 2002 until 2013. It was then that he opened his own bike-repair shop, an opportunity only available since 2011 when a series of economic reforms allowed Cubans to have private businesses and buy and sell property (albeit with the state as intermediary). His monthly income fluctuates, but last month was less than $15 dollars. It's enough "to survive," he said, as long as he keeps living in his parent's home.

Roberto and others hope that the government will continue with these kinds of reforms, which are necessary to diversify the economy. They also realize that changes like this take time. "We know we are far behind everyone in terms of the economy and technology and many things," said Adonys Dominguez, a taxi driver from Havana. "It's fine if change is slow. We need to ease into the future. I don't think we Cubans could handle it too quickly."

The problem is, there are limits on what the Cuban government can do alone to spur development. No amount of domestic policy change could mitigate the effects of the 56-year-long US embargo, which continues to slowly asphyxiate the island. What's known here as "the blockade" severely constricts international investment and trade. As long as it's in place, international observers say, Cuba's development will remain fitful.

There was hope among those I spoke with that the end of those roadblocks is near. In March, President Obama formally reestablished diplomatic ties with Cuba for the first time in 55 years. This, and the easing of certain restrictions on remittances and travel between the two nations—the result of a long détente between government representatives—was supposed to pave the way for a repeal of the embargo.

Then came November 8. It is unclear what US president-elect Donald Trump's policy will be on Cuba, or any number of things, for that matter. He was reported to have been checking out hotel options in Cuba only six months ago, but he has also made statements about terminating Obama's recent agreements.

Mention of the upcoming president's name in Cuba last week brought eye rolls and long exhales. "I think he is crazy. I don't think he has any idea what he is doing," Roberto said. His friend added: "Trump is just not normal."

But the fact that the American electorate had effectively reneged on the promise of hope triggered by the Obama administration's actions was neither surprising nor upsetting to these young men, or to anyone else I met on the island. Distrust of the northern Yanqui empire is all but bred into most Cubans from birth. If Trump reverses Obama's path, it will be added to a long list of ways the US has proven its unreliability. "We have lived with the blockade for 50 years," said Adonys, the taxi driver. If it lasts another decade, Cubans know how to survive. "Maybe Trump makes all of you [in the US] nervous," he added, "but not us."

What may be causing more anxiety, at least in the upper echelons of Cuban government, are political developments to the south. For more than a decade, Venezuela has been propping up this economy by providing them with free oil in exchange for doctors and other humanitarian support. This trade, engineered between Fidel and his late protégé Hugo Chavez, may soon no longer be viable. The Venezuelan economy is in shambles, and the political unraveling of Chavez's successor Nicolás Maduro could have disastrous effects for the tiny island.

To what extent Cuban officials are worried about this, or anything else, is anyone's guess. In the wake of Castro's passing, the party has been mute on any policy next steps. There are rumors there will be a period of political retrenchment, if only for Raúl to prove that his commitment to the revolution's core principles is genuine—that he hasn't been toeing the party line just because his older brother was looking over his shoulder.

Young Cuban men salute their fallen leader as Raúl Castro eulogized his brother in Santiago, Cuba.

On Saturday night, several thousand people filled Santiago's Plaza de la Revolución for Fidel's final public memorial. Current and former Latin American presidents, retired soccer great Diego Maradona, and Cuba's highest-ranking officials sat on a stage in front of a sculpture made up of 19 two-story-high machetes rising up from the ground—an homage to a local war hero from the 1800s.

Toward the front of the plaza, mourners packed themselves in, rapt by the eulogies. In the back, people meandered and lounged on blankets, tuning into the speakers only occasionally. I realized that the spectrum of interest evident in this crowd mirrored my interviews over the course of the caravan: Everyone I spoke with said that Fidel's death restored their commitment to his political vision, but the levels of their enthusiasm varied wildly.

Much has been made of the generational divide in Cuba, yet students seemed to be some of Fidel's most steadfast supporters. "We are the future of the revolution," Beniska Ramirez, 15, told me that night. Several of her friends nodded eagerly. "We want the world to know that Fidel might not be here physically, but he is in spirit," Cynthia Fonseca added. "What he created will be maintained."

What that means for their generation is still fuzzy. For example: What does the revolution do with the free fall that is the internet? This group of high schoolers had only cursory knowledge of what it means to be online. Private home access is reserved for rare circumstances, and the country's few internet cafes are too expensive for most. Last year, the government began putting WiFi hot spots in city parks and major hotels, but connecting is still costly. Ramirez, Fonseca, and their friends say their school is preparing to offer online access and that they sometimes connect with their phones but rarely. They got excited as they mused about what it must be like to have unlimited access to an infinite amount of information, or to meet new people electronically, to connect across oceans.

There's no telling who might be the person, or people, who will emerge to lead these transitions. On my first night in Cuba, I spoke with a 24-year-old recent college graduate who cried when he learned about Castro's death. "Lots of people complain about him and the government," he told me. "But when it comes down to it, we grew up with him. He was part of us." The young man lives along the country's central highway in the city of Santa Clara. He said the government had fixed the streetlights along his block that had been broken for years, because the caravan was supposed to pass by. I asked him if he thought someone from his generation might emerge as the next Fidel, someone who can captivate the nation's imagination and energy as the late leader once did. He shook his head without hesitation. He said: "There will never be another Fidel."

Follow Jean Friedman-Rudovsky on Twitter.

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