Cubans line up to bid farewell to Fidel Castro

HAVANA – Three generations of Cubans had an intimate psychological relationship, for better or worse, with Fidel Castro, who reshaped the country in the name of the socialist-nationalist system he called "the Revolution." He was a dominating and patriarchal figure in Cubans' public and even private lives, and he punished disobedience harshly.

Out of loyalty, obligation, or perhaps a bit of both, Cubans lined up for hours Monday to pay respects to Castro in a hushed procession that was tightly choreographed by their government. Shuffling forward in three columns, they passed identical floral memorials, each topped with a portrait of the bearded leader as a young guerrilla fighter with a faraway gaze across the mountains.

The tribute had a dutiful feel, with nothing left to chance. Squinting in the bright sun, Cubans arrived in groups of co-workers and classmates at the Plaza of the Revolution, where Castro's hours-long speeches once echoed.

"He's our commander, and I wanted to say goodbye," Sofia Morales said, with not much conviction. Morales, 25, arrived by bus with other students from a teacher-training college.

If Cubans' true feelings and emotions about the man who ruled this country for 49 years are complex and conflicted, this was not the place to express them. Just as Castro's one-party state imposed ideological and political conformity, the public response to his death on Friday night at age 90 has been a kind of state-directed emotional uniformity, at least at the surface.

Nonetheless, there were signs that for some Cubans, Castro's death was deeply personal. He had imbued their lives with a sense of moral purpose, in exchange for their sacrifices and loyalty, they said.

"I was born under the Revolution. I was raised by the Revolution. I was trained by the Revolution," said Wilson Vega, 51, a neurologist who lined up in his white doctor's coat. "I am who I am because of Fidel Castro," he said, his eyes welling with tears.


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Vega's parents were illiterate peasant farmers in the Sierra Maestra mountains where Castro waged guerrilla war until he seized power in January 1959. They adored Castro, and they sent their son to a boarding school for rural children founded by him and his revolutionary comrade Ernesto "Che" Guevara.

"If it wasn't for Fidel, I'd probably be a poor farmer, too," said Vega.

Castro evolved over his half-century in power, and the swaggering, infallible figure he projected as a younger man gave way to something less imposing as he went gray and his lofty socialist ideals crashed into economic ruin. He refused to step down even as his policies brought widespread misery and mass exodus.

Over the years, many younger Cubans came to see him like a stubborn, grandfatherly figure whose musings on history and geopolitics were divorced from the grinding struggles of their daily lives. Still, they often glossed over his flaws out of a sense of patriotism and national identity. This, after all, is a country Castro redefined as a heroic underdog locked in an epic struggle for independence with a superpower 90 miles away.

"I grew up watching him on TV as a boy," said Yasmani Michel, 26, an Afro-Cuban dancer with multiple ear piercings and a bleach-blond goatee.

Such an appearance would have brought him under suspicion of being an "ideological deviant" during the first decades of Castro's rule, when gays and longhair musicians were often sent to hard-labor "reeducation" camps. But that kind of oppression has eased in recent years.

Michel said Castro deserved credit for smashing the racial hierarchies of pre-revolutionary Cuba, when lighter-skinned citizens dominated the economy and government.

"Gender, social class, race – none of those things matter anymore," said Michel. "We're all equal now."

He said he was planning to get a tattoo of Castro – at the moment when a white dove landed on his shoulder during a 1959 speech – on his right bicep.

The government has ordered nine days of mourning that will conclude Sunday when Castro's ashes are buried in the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba.

Traffic and commerce returned mostly to normal Monday, but the usual sounds of reggaeton and salsa music blaring in the streets was absent, and alcohol sales were banned. A booming salute from artillery cannons sounded in the morning.

Elsewhere around the city, Cubans went to local government offices to sign an oath pledging loyalty to the Revolution, and specifically to a definition of it that Castro laid out in a 2000 speech.

Castro defined it then as a broad, evolving system of values: equality and freedom, modesty and altruism, truth, honesty and justice. Whether Cubans believe his communist-run state has achieved those things was another matter.

Revolution also means "changing everything that should be changed," his conception affirmed, and that seemed to leave room for a less-rigid future for Cubans, too.

"Your ideas will never perish," one woman wrote in tribute, after signing the oath at a government building in Havana's Playa neighborhood. "Fidel, you will always be a father to me," wrote another signer.

The loyalty oath was voluntary, but virtually any Cuban with ties to a government school, ministry or state-run business would be expected to make the trip to the memorial in the plaza.


There was little doubt the event was meant to convey an impression of mass popular support for Castro, who was never directly elected. "Every Cuban who feels revolutionary should come here and give him their vote," said Frank Stuart, 32, who arrived with a brigade of fellow railroad mechanics.

In one ironic sign of the current predicament of Cuba – caught between President Obama's steps to normalize relations and fresh threats to undo them from President-elect Donald Trump – there were even a few American visitors lined up in the crowd.

The first commercial flights from the United States to Havana in more than 50 years touched down at the city's international airport Monday morning.

"This is fascinating," said Dan Katz, 35, a financial analyst from California wearing an Oakland A's baseball cap, who attended the Castro tribute.

"In America, he's talked about as an evil dictator. Here he's a national hero. I know it's tough to tell what people really think, but it seems like he's really important to them."

The government will hold a mass gathering on Tuesday at 7 p.m. for Havana residents to say a final goodbye. There was no word yet whether his brother Raúl Castro, his 85-year-old successor, would speak.

After the ceremony, Castro's ashes will be driven across the island in a caravan that will stop along the way for Cubans in the provinces to pay their respects.