Ever wonder if you might be a covert CIA operative? A secret assassin whose memory is wiped, Jason Bourne style, after each hit? Well if I had the necessary fitness levels and cunning, I might start to wonder. It seems that world leaders tend to snuff it when I visit their countries.
First, there was Sheikh Zayed when I lived in The UAE in 2004 and now, on holidays in Cuba, Fidel Castro has finally gone to the great commune in the sky. Or wherever he may be.
It’s rumoured that the CIA tried to finish him off over 600 times with methods as inventive as exploding cigars, poisoned cold cream and ex-girlfriend-turned-assassins. If only they had known that all it would take was for one Irish girl to go on holidays…
Nine days of mourning have been announced throughout Cuba. Flags fly at half mast. Throughout this mourning period, as Cubans pay dutiful respects, you can feel that a weight has been lifted from the country’s collective shoulders. There’s an almost tangible sense of hope in the streets of Havana.
Fidel’s story is a well documented one. Father of the revolution in the 1950s, former leader of the communist party and president, Castro controlled Cuba for almost six decades while eleven US presidents came and went. He was instrumental in the rise of communism and shaping modern day Cuba through a totalitarian Marxist regime. In 2008, too unwell to continue with his presidency, he handed the reins over to his brother Raul who carries on in Fidel’s spirit, though is seen to be marginally more progressive. Castro’s death, in many ways, symbolises the unclenching of an iron fist.
Inside Cuba, the information available about their former president is alarmingly scant and biased. Under strict government control, museums and national monuments present a blatantly propagandist view of the revolution and its main players. The morning after Fidel’s death, our little band of Irish tourists ventured into the Museum of the Revolution where exhibits decry the Batiste dictatorship (which was overthrown during the revolution) as ‘tyrannical’ and celebrate Fidel and his cohorts as the saviours of Cuba. The language used is antagonistic. The information is selective. The museum is essentially a shrine to the Castro regime. It conveniently doesn’t reference the austerity measures forced on Cuba under Fidel’s leadership, the firing squads employed to quell any dissent or the imprisonment of those who spoke out against el Comendante.
The people here are guarded. The answers to any questions are measured and often prefaced with one query: ‘Are you a journalist?’ If you ask a Cuban today if Castro was liked by his people, they give the stock answer: Some people liked him, some people didn’t. During the nine days of mourning, somber faces greet tourists and the ex-pat community as all music and celebrations grind to a halt. The streets are heavily policed and any activities deemed inappropriate are stopped immediately. If you listen closely though, you will hear Latin beats creeping into the streets from house parties in full swing. And if you’re in the know, you may even wrangle an invitation.
Fidel’s 1953 speech at the Court of Appeals entitled ‘History will absolve me’ was to become his manifesto. The words were to form the foundations of the Cuban Revolution and his reign of power. It’s title is soon to be put to the test. Cuba is split and its history, like all national histories, has been written by the winners. Castro’s legacy is not clear cut. Outside of Cuba, words like ‘dictator’ get thrown around, but how Castro is remembered by his people will only be told in time. National newspapers and tv stations, like everything in Cuba, are government controlled and remind readers and viewers of the great loss they have suffered. The national dailies on the day following Fidel’s death all bore the same, carefully planned headline and quote from Ché Guevarra: ‘Hasta La Victoria Sempre’ (Ever Onward to Victory). CNN reports of Cuban communities celebrating in Miami were watched by many with eagle eyes and suppressed smiles. Many faces are filled with optimism, but there are just as many grieving. Revolutionary Square is swarmed with mourners today and millions are expected to line the streets over the coming days to bid final farewells to their former commander in chief.
Tomorrow, a procession will lead Fidel’s ashes from Havana to Santiago de Cuba in the east of the country, where the revolution began in 1956. Conversely, the day of his death, November 25th, marks the 60th anniversary of his departure from Mexico with Ché Guevarra, Camilo Cienfuegos and their comrades when they sailed for Cuba to start the revolution. Now, his return to Santiago will take the route of the revolution in reverse and arrive in Santiago on the 60th anniversary of their landing in that same place. It’s almost poetic. At least, poetic enough to pluck at the heartstrings of many a romantic Cuban nationalist. But I’m sure the conspiracy theorists out there will have plenty to say about the timing of Castro’s death and the fact that he was seen neither alive nor dead for a long time before his death was announced on 25th November.
One thing is for certain: love him, or hate him, for eleven million Cubans an era has ended and for the first time in almost sixty years, there is a promise of better things to come.
And as for me, well, I’m thinking a little break to North Korea might be next on the cards.