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From the tree-lined edge of a large road, thousands of Cubans stood along avenues leading to the capital’s famed Plaza de la Revolucion to pay tribute to Fidel Castro, the deceased revolutionary leader who ruled the country with an iron fist for several decades.
On the side of the road, elderly citizens bearing medals on their chests waited under a sign that carried the words “the revolution is invincible”, alongside a picture of child ballerinas.
Adult Cubans seemed to have gathered among friends for the occasion – there were with no children in sight.
A group of middle-aged women tried to get through a side entrance on another street – but a police guard turned them away and, ignoring loud protests, directed them back to the street where thousands of people waited in a wide queue.
A young man was taking pictures quietly. Others sat underneath shaded trees. A group of tourists were also in line. One asked a young man about international media reporting young Cubans did not care about the leader’s death. The young man responded shyly, “I like Fidel”. He motioned a finger to his head, “He thinks”.
Despite power having been assumed by Castro’s brother, Raul, he believed the deceased Cuban leader was the main decision maker in the regime and feared uncertainties as to how the country would now be ruled.
‘This is no theatre, it’s no hypocrisy’
Suddenly, there was a clamour across the street. Youth were chanting a revolutionary slogan, “El Pueblo, unido, jamas sara vincido” (“the united people will never be defeated”). They were gathered around a giant Cuban flag, which they waved, chanting, “Fidel, Fidel”.
The intersection was flanked by Cuban Red Cross tents, ambulances and security. From there, people were ushered onto the square in a wide queue limited by barriers. All went quiet as the security guards instructed people to turn off mobile phones. A Cuban citizen asked tourists not to take pictures, out of respect. Two columns of people snaked toward the memorial across the monumental square, which otherwise looked eerily empty.
A Cuban man told a foreigner, “My case is special, I’m 44 years old, I’m an artist, a composer, an actor – and I had cancer.” With a tremor in his voice he added, “I was able to get medical care thanks to this man – this is no theatre, it’s no hypocrisy”.
At the gate of the memorial, military officers filed past flower arrangements to enter alongside citizens. A woman gave instructions allowing photos to be taken without sound. Inside a draped room with columns, men in white uniforms stood still around Castro’s portrait.
One by one, people walked slowly in front of the flowers and the portrait, surrounded by a panel in honour of the communist party and another expounding the concept of the revolution. Upon exit, people seemed relieved they could take photos, quickly snapped a few shots and selfies, sometimes with a smile, and started walking down the hill.
A taxi driver hailed in the neighbouring avenue asked a foreigner, “Did you go to see the Commandante?” “Yes” “That’s good,” he replied. “He is a great man, a great man. He is unique, there is only one Fidel Castro. He is very intelligent. He is loved throughout Latin America.”
Back in the centre of town, a self-described young businessman clad in a sleeveless T-shirt bearing the inscription “Florida” had other views. He rolled his eyes and said, “Fidel is gone… finally! The Cubans do not like him.” And he spread his hands apart, mimicking the wings of a bird taking off.
By night time, hundreds of students in school uniforms were streaming out of Plaza de la Revolucion into a nearby avenue. Farther down the road leading to the airport, dozens of red buses were parked. They were part of the caravan due to accompany Castro’s remains to his final resting place, in the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba.