Fidel Castro is laid to rest – so what next for Cuba?
Harriet Alexander, santiago de cuba
6 DECEMBER 2016 • 4:55PM
In the hallway of his apartment building, with a statue of a Greek
goddess looking down, Josue Carmona Ramos was leading his people in a
particularly Cuban prayer.
World leaders were gathering at that moment in Havana’s main square,
Plaza de la Revolucion, to pay tribute to Fidel Castro in front of a
crowd tens of thousands strong. But inside Mr Carmona’s building, it was
a deeply personal plea.
“Fidel’s work must not die,” said Mr Carmona, who spent 32 years in the
ministry of defence, and now heads up his building’s Committee for the
Defence of the Revolution.
“Nothing is going to change.”
Indeed, most agree that it will be Donald Trump’s arrival rather than
Castro’s departure which may change Cuba. And they also agree that Mr
Trump’s rule holds little promise for a brighter future for them –
especially if he goes ahead with his promise to undo President Barack
Obama’s cultivation of business links, travel and communications.
At dawn the next day, Castro’s ashes passed one street from his house,
on the start of a four-day journey across Cuba for burial in Santiago on
Sunday. Thousands of Cubans lined Havana’s promenade, the Malecon,
waving flags. On cue, when the olive green military jeep passed, they
began chanting: “Viva Cuba!” and “Fidel! Fidel!”
Luisa Coca Ramos, 79, was standing on the seafront, resplendent in a
dress she had made from the Cuban flag and with Castro’s picture pinned
to her chest. In her hands she grasped a rose.
“I owe my life to him,” she said. “I had liver problems, but had no
money to see the doctor. I would have been dead 40 years ago if the
revolution hadn’t triumphed, and given free healthcare to us all.”
Ask Mrs Coca is anything will change, and she shakes her head fiercely.
“We are stronger than ever,” she said.
And Castro’s death last Friday, at the age of 90, has left many around
the world wondering what next.
Diplomatic sources in Cuba agreed that, for signs of change, watch
Washington. Havana’s position is unlikely to shift, but Mr Trump has
promised to roll back Mr Obama’s policies.
“With the executive power of the president, Trump can absolutely undo
Obama’s changes,” said Peter Quinter, a Miami-based lawyer who worked
for the US customs agency. “Obama was able to do it all without
It will not be easy.
American businesses are already hungrily nibbling at the embargo; cruise
ships now dock in the port, and Airbnb offers accommodation to all. On
the day of Castro’s memorial in Plaza de la Revolucion, the first
commercial flight since the revolution landed from the US.
“The determining factor for Raul is not the absence of his brother, but
the rise of Trump and what he might mean for Cuba,” said Manuel Barcia
Paz, a Cuban professor of Latin American studies at Leeds University.
“I can easily see Raul calling off his 2018 retirement because of Trump.
“All the improvements seen with Obama might evaporate. Remember the
Republicans have traditionally been the Castros’s very best friends,
because they have provided them with the confrontational foe they need
to carry on with their ‘them versus us’ mentality.”
And in the centre of Havana’s old town, a bohemian brotherhood of young
Cubans was hoping that that would now change.
Ariel and Tomas run an art gallery, selling modern works by up and
coming Cuban artists to the hoardes of tourists who now throng the
city’s elegantly decaying streets. The warehouse would not be out of
place in New York’s hipster enclave of Williamsburg; graffiti art hangs
from washing lines strung across the beams, and screen prints are pegged
to the walls.
But Ariel, 34, is frustrated.
“There is so much more we could do,” he said. “But the bureaucracy here
is stifling. I want to be able to have an international bank account,
and export around the world. I want to be able to travel and find new
interesting artists. I want to bring creatives here to work in the
studio. But I can’t.”
Sitting beside him on the over-stuffed sofa, Tomas nods. “Something has
to give. Look – we are not rebels. But we want to make a living. And
maybe now Fidel’s gone, the situation will change.”
Most believe that, in the short term at least, that is a vain hope.
Ever the wily strategist, Castro realised that dying in office would
leave a legacy of chaos. So eight years ago he handed over to his
younger brother Raul, who is now well established as the president of
the country’s 12 million people. The structure is firmly in place –
crucially, the military, which is believed to control 65 per cent of
Cuba’s economy, is loyal.
Mr Castro has said he will step aside in 2018; the current favourite to
succeed, Miguel Diaz Canel, is seen as being highly unlikely to usher in
multiparty democracy or profound reform.
“There is no sign that either the dissident opposition, or the
government’s loyal critics, or reformers within the government have any
appetite to use the occasion as a moment to push for change,” said Dr
Emily Morris, honorary fellow at UCL’s Institute of the Americas.
And, she added, Castro’s departure is unlikely to energise the
opposition. “For the younger Cubans, Fidel was history already before he
Indeed, the iron grip with which the brothers have ruled the country
remains as strong as ever. People are perhaps freer to speak, and
complain about the economic hardships caused by the embargo and US
policy – but no one will ever criticise the Castros. The Committees for
the Defence of the Revolution (CDR) – a network of informants in every
building, every block – keeps the people in line. When Castro died there
was no hysterical outpouring of grief: Cubans, as ever, did as they were
Since Mr Obama announced that the US was restoring diplomatic relations
with Cuba, the human rights situation has not changed – short term
detentions have actually increased, according to Human Rights Watch and
Amnesty. Journalists travelling to Cuba to cover Castro’s funeral were
shocked at the surveillance; reporters from Germany, Italy and Argentina
were denied permission to attend events, and a Brazilian awoke to find
the Cuban police at his hotel room door, warning him about his
Leaving the country remains a challenge – even if it is now legal.
Internet access has increased to well over 100 wifi parks nationwide,
even along the Malecon – but at $2 an hour, in a country where most
people earn around $35 a month, is prohibitively expensive for many.
And as Castro’s caravan wound its way through Cuba last week, few had
expectations of change – even if, in their heart of hearts, they are
hoping for a shift in policy.
Trianfe Dominguez Fabre, 73, has lived in her small wooden hut for 34
years. Surrounded by sugar plantations and with the mountains of Holguin
province in the distance, it is a beautiful spot.
“If I could speak to Raul, I would ask for things to stay the same,” she
said – repeating the common refrain.
Yet little by little, she told of her hardships in a place where the
landscape appears to have scarcely changed in 100 years. There is no
running water; a tank comes every 15 days or so, but it barely provides
for the 13 people who live in the five huts. The children have to
hitch-hike the two miles to school. Electricity arrived two years ago,
but only after the families took matter into their own hands and rigged
up a wire from the mains. A lot of the people have left, admits Mrs
Dominguez, who lives off the land and her 200 pesos ($8) a month pension.
Yaima Santi Esteban, 29, has already seen her boyfriend leave – heading
to the US eight years ago. She is the only one of the 13 who has a phone
– a gift from him.
“I have to go 12km to get internet, so I generally can only use it for
texts and calls,” she said.
Like many young Cubans, America – despite the politics – promises
freedoms. “It’s hard. It’d be nice to go to Miami,” she said.
In the neighbouring hamlet of La Italiana, Melba Olivera, 73, said her
one wish before dying was to be able to buy a fan for her sweltering
room so she can sleep at night.
“I’m a revolutionary,” she said. “Viva Fidel. But the revolution hasn’t
Perhaps the biggest change came with the fall of the USSR – cutting off
an economic lifeline for the country. The same would happen were
Venezuela to topple. In the 1990s the “special period” – the time when
the Soviet crutch disappeared – is remembered as one of immense
hardship, when GDP fell 35 per cent.
And at that time Pablo Antonio Rodriguez Zequeia decided to take up the
government’s offer of leaving the city and working on the land, to
reduce food shortages.
Formerly a teacher, he is now a farmer – cultivating a veritable Garden
of Eden on the outskirts of the town of Taguasco, close to the route of
Castro’s ashes. Mango, avocado, lettuces, carrots, oranges and sweet
potatoes grow in the fields; cows, sheep, pigs, ducks and goats crop at
the grass. He fishes from the river flowing below.
“My friends said I was mad,” he chuckled. “But now they call me the
millionaire. I’ve gone back to the land – I live off this.”
He has to give the majority of the goods to the state – inspectors come
round to collect up to 90 per cent of each crop. The rest he takes on
his beloved 38-year-old Soviet motorbike to sell or give to friends.
Carlos Sanchez, 62, works in the field for him. Again, he insists he
does not want things to change. But after a while, he thinks of something.
“It would be nice to have some new machinery,” he admitted, with a grin.
And while many are privately craving change, for others there is no
Luis Felipe Soto Carvallosa, 91, fought alongside Che Guevara in the
mountains of the Sierra Maestra, being captured four times. His brother
rose to be a general, before dying in battle. Throughout the war he met
Raul, Fidel and Camilo Cienfuegos – the top commanders of the guerrilla
Now an old man, he remembers vividly those battles, sitting in his
rocking chair in the town of Banes – ironically the hometown of
Fulgencio Batista, who Fidel overthrew in 1959.
Having lived through so much, what would he change?
“Nothing,” replied Mr Soto. “The change came when the revolution was won.”
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