by Sebastian Africano, International Director
30 November 2016
On November 25th, 2016, I was sitting on a farm outside of Cienfuegos, Cuba, drinking strong coffee under a tree and talking about Latin America’s past, present, and future with the directors of a rural theater company. Like many conversations here go, we compared other countries in the region, their trajectories, their hallmarks, and their deficiencies. Among the stories told was that of a friend of one of those at the table who had returned to Cuba almost 37 years after leaving as a political dissident, after having vowed not to return until Fidel Castro died. He had given up and decided that his love for the country was greater than his fear of what its government might do to him. Waiting for Fidel to die, I thought… and I said to the table, “so many people have been waiting for that moment.”
Later that night, I woke randomly at 3:57am EST, restless, and listened to people boisterously rolling out of a nearby nightclub. I couldn’t sleep – likely due to the late afternoon coffee – and decided to flip on the television in my room to see what the State was broadcasting at that time of night. All channels were static, except for two identical ones on which credits were rolling from a program that was ending. As soon as these ended, a newsflash came on with a visibly uncomfortable female newscaster sitting next to a photo of Fidel Castro. The audio was jammed, but my heart jumped at what I thought she might be saying. I flipped to the other station, where I heard for the first time that Fidel Castro had died. Immediately I jumped out of bed to see Raul Castro come on screen and repeat the news: “…hoy, 25 de Noviembre del 2016, a las 10:29 horas de la noche, falleció el Comandante en Jefe de la Revolución Cubana, Fidel Castro Ruz.” I immediately ran out into the courtyard to wake my colleague Lucas Wolf to share what I had just heard.
At 5:00am on November 26th, I could still hear people on the street who had clearly heard the news, and my mind raced at the significance of being in Cuba at this moment in history. The sun was an hour from coming up, and my first thoughts are how to get to Havana to bear witness to what would likely be one of the biggest public manifestations in this country’s history. I can only smile at the irony that earlier that same evening I realized that November 25th was the biggest embodiment of consumer culture in the capitalist world – Black Friday. It was as if one final ideological barb had been thrown at Cuba in an almost century-long battle for the soul of the hemisphere. Just like that, the world turned, and one of the most colossal and polemic figures in history was gone.
Several days later, now back in the U.S., I ponder the subtlety with which the country took Fidel’s passing. Flags fly at half-mast still today, and houses throughout Cienfuegos, and surely the country had both the Cuban flag and the 26th of July Movement flag draped on their windows and doors. During nine days of mourning, all cultural events and live entertainment had ceased, music in taxis was silenced, and alcohol sales were prohibited (mostly), leaving the city in a pleasant, meditative calm. But apart from the odd conversation on the street, people were relatively mum about the event unless we brought it up first, which generally led to a rich, reflective exchange.
We bagged our plans of traveling to Havana from Cienfuegos to avoid the throngs of Cubans and dozens of dignitaries from around the world that flew into Havana on Monday and Tuesday for funeral services. Mourners queued for hours in central plazas across the country to pay homage to their fallen leader, and to show their commitment to the “revolutionary values” listed in Fidel’s May 1, 2000 speech to the country. We walked to Cienfuegos’ main square in awe of the thousands of people with flowers in hand, waiting for their turn to sign Fidel’s funeral registers. For every person cheering in Miami’s streets on Friday night, there were thousands in Cuba showing, at the very least, respect for what they considered Fidel represented. Fall where you may on the political spectrum, the impacts of Fidel’s ideological intransigence will be debated for centuries, as will the steps taken in the months and years after his death.
The mark Fidel Castro left on history is an unhealable wound for some, and for others a badge of honor, a national identity, and a living example of an alternate path. The Cuba I know is a place where people are cultured, talented, peaceful, loving, forward-thinking, and tough as nails. They have been through and sacrificed much to build a society and country of which most are proud, while openly recognizing its shortcomings. As Cuba crosses the chasm into a post-Castro mixed economy and an age of unprecedented information access, we have the choice of either continuing to isolate Cubans behind an artificial wall of outdated political fervor, or to lend them every bit of support we can to help protect the gains they have made while contributing to a more positive, prosperous, and inclusive future.
This is a future that I believe in, and one I hope you’ll support as Trees, Water & People extends its hands to some of the most remarkable people in the hemisphere.