It was nine in the morning when we emerged from our room, still letting our eyes adjust to the sun. The woman of our casa rushes in from the backdoor and says, “I have bad news. Fidel…” and she drew a finger across her neck in an invisible line, “se murió…” I searched her face for emotion, I was expecting her to be somewhat happy, feeling a sense of freedom, a breath of relief, but to my naïve surprise what I found was sadness, distress, and uneasiness. Her face sort of made an upside hyperbole, as if her face was made of metal and there was a magnet pulling her face to the ground. This wrinkle of anguish seemed totally uncomfortable, as if it would have felt better just to cry. I asked what happened to him and her son, not as upset but still genuinely concerned said, “Nothing. He was sick, he’s been sick. And last night at 10:29 he passed away.” When he said 10:29, his mom echoed him, as if she had repeated this time over and over, cementing it into her memory. Alejandro squeezed my hand and said, “Wow, Fifi passed away on the same day as my birthday.” And we walked back to his house to grab breakfast. I was genuinely confused, and was eager to get back to Alejandro’s house to ask his parents’ opinion. They would definitely be more candid, I thought.
Flags turned sideways outside of every house in mourning
Alejandro burst into the house and yelled out, “Fifi died?” looking for confirmation. His mother nodded her head gravely as she sat in the backyard picking out imperfections in the grains of rice. I sat down next to her and started to sort through the rice. The morning was perfectly cool, with the sun shining through the green limestone mountains that is signature Viñales. “Cómo siente?”…How do you feel, I ask her. Happy? Sad? “Poco triste…” a little sad, she says, fighting back tears. I can’t quite recall who told us that there would be no music in all of Cuba for the next nine days. It was Saturday, and I had brought this amazing red dress to wear to the cave party that night. I felt slight selfish disappointment at not being able to wear it.
Not really fully grasping the consequences of this historical moment, I thought to myself, well, we could just get drunk at the house then. So we walked to the center of town to buy some beers, but the usually stocked fridges of state-owned stores only had water and juice. Weird. Maybe it was too early to be selling alcohol, said my Texas-girl, alcohol-prohibited-before-noon, self. We walked back home, the sun a little higher and the air a little hotter. A curly haired, pre-Raphaelite boy, stops to bump fists with Alejandro on the street, and asks what we’re doing. “We’re just walking around trying to find some beer, but seems like everyone ran out.” “No,” he said, “They’re not selling any for another four more days. No party because of Fidel.” I thought, damn, that sucks for the tourists who came here looking to party (as if I wasn’t one of them).
Back at the house, Alejandro’s brother was packing an overnight bag and I asked where he was going. He said to the beach, since there’s no party here, maybe there will be on the hidden edges of the island. Turns out, there wasn’t any.
The most common image of Fidel immediately after his death showing on all channels.
The television showed nothing but news of Fidel’s death. It was exciting for me at first, but even Alejandro’s parents abandoned the plastic rocking chairs in front of the television after awhile. Both went back outside to feed the chickens and repaint the house. His mom said she just wanted to watch a movie, but regular programming was turned off also. So I watched the news every night, not by choice, but out of sheer boredom for the next three days.
The first day after his death the news played black and white footage of Fidel’s untiring revolutionary speech, in which both Alejandro and his dad seemed to have memorized and repeated along with the television. It frightened me a bit. On one hand, it had the air of robotics covered in brainwash, and on the other reminded me of the Pledge of Allegiance (although quite a bit longer), equally robotic, but not nearly as scary to my American mind.
Picture stills of his famous speech to the U.N. Watch it here.
The second day was a series of interviews attesting to the strength and generosity that Fidel exhibited throughout his lifetime. For example, a Venezuelan medical doctor said she would have never been able obtain her medical degree if it were not for the free education system in Cuba. Or a grandmother from El Salvador said Fidel gave her and her grandson mattresses when no one else cared, the camera panning over to a group playing the guitar and singing songs of praise to Fidel in a small, all-white room. There were also interviews from university professors in Cuba attesting to Fidel’s intelligence, his prowess, his acute attention to large-scale projects and detail, leaving no one behind to suffer. Then there were statements from presidents of Venezuela, Angola, Mexico, all praising the revolution and Cuba’s ability to abstain from U.S. support. One headline exclaimed, “The United States is No Longer the Owner of the World.” Fidel’s defiance has inspired other countries to take back their financial independence.
And on the third day after his death, there was 24 hour live reporting in Havana. Multitudes of people were lined up outside of the main church in procession to lay down flowers in front of pictures of Fidel throughout the day and night. As I started to sort through my feelings, what I found most interesting was the impact the news was starting to have on me. I knew in a lot of ways this was all propaganda, but I also knew they were telling the truth. He really did do all of those things. He really did make people feel that way.
(Not my photo) Plaza de la Revolucion days after Fidel’s death in Havana
They always showed him in his combat greens as a warrior, victorious, and passionate. During one clip a reporter asked him if he always wears a bulletproof vest, he quickly unbuttons his shirt and puffs out his chest to show off his naked body. Ever invincible, he was not afraid of death. The picture stills were of his black beard, not yet flecked with gray, standing on a hill with Cuba in the background. His stature seemed larger than life, his mindset always portrayed as one-step ahead of the enemy. Everything about it was total media portrayal and psychology. And despite knowing all of this, I felt…proud. I felt inspired. I felt strong. I felt as if Cuba was mine. And it felt… weird.
When questioned about wearing a bullet proof vest
I decided to check the headlines in the United States, looking for a dose of reality since I felt like maybe the propaganda was working on me. I was surprisingly impressed with the U.S. media reporting on Fidel with a completely unbiased voice, and still describing him as a character worthy of respect for what he’s accomplished whether for benevolence or for evil. They described him as a “fiery apostle of revolution…who defied the United States.” How he seized the country by force and intolerance to anyone against him, how he successfully introduced free healthcare and free education, how behind Queen Elizabeth II was the longest living ruler today, how the CIA embarrassingly failed their attempt at assassinating him, and how for this long has completely resisted any sort of relationship with the United States. These are their words, not mine.
I then logged onto my Instagram, looking for some sort of entertainment for the remainder of the time left on my pre-paid Internet card. But the first video I saw was of Calle Ocho in Little Cuba, Miami. People were honking their horns in celebration of his death. I felt…enraged. How could they even know what Cuba was like? The new generation has not even been to Cuba. He did so much, he cared so much. They know nothing. But of course they hate him. He took business and property from their families and declared them for the state. And if they disagreed, he exiled them and killed many people they knew. People died escaping this regime. Their feelings are valid. But then I looked up and saw a team of Cuban police officers, two holding the Cuban flag at the forefront and the rest following with flowers in their hands, walking down in perfect formation on a government-made concrete road lined with manicured lawns and bright characteristically Caribbean houses to the Center of Culture and Arts where there was a shrine dedicated to his memorial. I kept thinking: I get it, but I don’t get it.
(Not my photo) Cubans in Miami celebrate the passing of Fidel with signs reading “No soy Fidel, soy Cubano”…I am not Fidel, I am Cuban.
I felt so conflicted, so confused, what was real, what wasn’t real. What was propaganda on their end, what was propaganda on my end? What had I been taught to believe all of my very American life? I ran home. “There are police in the street with flowers for Fidel.” Alejandro’s father responds, “Yes, of course. That’s natural. He was our leader. We are very sad.” I was still looking for a slight sense of betrayal, like was he being forced to say this, saying this out of fear for opposing the government.
School kids and professionals lined up outside of the Center of Culture and Arts in Vinales, Cuba every morning after Fidel’s death to pay tribute. This was the only music I heard during those days.
He was genuinely sad. He recited the revolutionary speech again, this time without the TV to guide him. I don’t think they thought he would ever die. They were never prepared for this moment. He was the closest thing to God. In a near-by room Alejandro plays reggaeton music from his phone, and then remembers what day it is and quickly shuts it off.
In a sense, this attitude pregnant with pride and strength embodies the spirit of Cuba itself. But I’m not sure what came first, the pride of the Cuban people or the pride of Fidel. Who inspired who? And what does this mean for the future? What does it mean for this family? I asked Alejandro if he thought things would change. At first he said no, then he said, pienso que sí, more technology.
Flag at half mass and the center empty hours after Fidel’s death
I was there in Cuba helping them repair their house. It was my third trip back. The average Cuban earns $25/month, so I was funding an air conditioner, two beds, paint, towels, a sink, amongst other things. The economy didn’t seem to make sense and I felt it to be so unfair, yet how was it possible for me to feel such pride for this country? And why was I so conflicted? Maybe because everything about this situation was at odds. Fidel fought for his country, by killing his own countrymen. He provided for the poor, and bankrupted everyone in the process. He sought to liberate his country, yet no one could leave the country.
But also the propaganda I saw on Cuban television, only reflected the propaganda that had been used on me in America. I was still searching for a remnant of hate for Fidel in the faces of the Cubans I’ve come to know and love, and I could not find a single drop. In my mind he was this tyrannical creature that forces them to be in this situation, yet in their minds he was genuinely loved for taking the responsibility of Cuba into his hands for them. He came through with his promises by any and all costs, and represented the macho and the pride they feel within. And yet, my own feelings of loyalty and patriotism to America had me feeling a sense of betrayal. I was looking for them to hate him, but they did not. And I was looking for myself to hate him, but I did not. He was both loveable and hateable. Either Fidel is still manipulating us from his grave, or he really is someone worthy of reverence.
Ironically, I was aboard the very first direct flight from Cuba to the United States, day 4 after Fidel’s death. Did he time that on purpose? Die before having any relationship with the United States? Over my dead body, literally? Fidel would have said yes.