Ivan Garcia, 26 November 2016 — At midnight no one was talking about the biggest news story of the year along crowded Tenth of October Avenue. A group of drunks was downing white rum from little cardboard cartons, cheap hookers were plying their trade in a tiny park in Santa Catalina, and four transvestites in high heels were on the hunt for clients right across from La Vibora’s Red Square.
Ten minutes after a shaken Raúl Castro announced the death of his brother Fidel on state television, the event had barely registered in the darkened streets of Tenth of October, one of the island’s most densely populated areas.
No extra police were seen being deployed. Dozens of young people were climbing up steep Patrocinio Street to El Túnel nightclub next to the Los Chivos Park, intent on dancing to reggaetón music and drinking Cristal beer.
Two bored employees at a state-run coffeehouse near the old La Víbora bus stop were talking about the the latest soap opera. People first heard the news only when asked about it.
The reaction was low-key, without any drama: “Is Fidel really dead? He has been killed off so many times before.” And the responses from those who had already heard the news were along the lines of “He’s had a long life” and “We all have to die sometime.”
Eduardo, a driver on the P-10 bus from Vibora to Playa de Marianao does not believe things will change much after the death of Fidel Castro. “The government has everything locked up. There may be some economic changes but, as usual, ordinary people like us won’t see them. It’s not just Fidel Castro that is the problem; it’s his cronies in the ruling class who don’t want to open things up so Cubans can make some money.”
Sometime after eight o’clock on Saturday morning, November 26, a number of people are standing on the corner Acosta and Tenth of October, speculating about what Castro’s death might mean for the future.
Lidice, who sells pirated DVDs, believes that, “with Fidel’s death, Raul can lay one era to rest. This gives him free reign to carry out real economic reform, not the band-aid solutions he has been using. Otherwise, the country is going to fall apart. If he wants to hold onto power, he has to let private businesses prosper.”
Diego, an information technology worker, is more cautious. “It would be easy to say that everything bad in Cuba is because of Fidel. The problem now is with the system, which is worn out, and the gang of corrupt officials who live off it. Castroism is not going to die with Fidel. The best option is to head for Miami, Madrid or Canada. It doesn’t matter where. The main thing is to leave here before it all goes to hell,” he says.
Denise, who has a degree in history, worries about the future after the death of Castro I. “After the funeral services are over, after the televsion channels have aired all their old footage extolling Fidel, then we will ask ourselves what will happen in Cuba. The country will not put up with any more lies. People want change that will affect their daily lives. Fidel was a guy with an outsize personality. His death has left a huge leadership vacuum. Have you noticed that the current leaders don’t have a political message to sell? They don’t express themselves well and don’t even know how to laugh. The worst thing that can happen to a politician is to not be able to offer his constituents any ideas,” she observes.
Julio Aleaga — head of the opposition group Candidates for Change, which advocates nominating dissidents for the few public offices open to citizen participation — believes that “the death of Fidel Castro, a very negative figure, can be the catalyst for profound change. The conservative wing of the ruling party has lost a powerful symbol. And over the medium term change is unstoppable.”
The death of Fidel Castro has come as a blow to the dissident community, which is clearly feeling disoriented. Without a popular base of support and unable to summon more than a hundred people for a public march, Victor Manuel Domínguez, a journalist and freelance writer, feels that there may be tough times ahead for the opposition.
“The current situation is frightening. Venezuela, the teat providing us with petroleum, is experiencing a ferocious economic, political and social crisis. Chavismo has an expiration date. Cuba lives in almost perpetual economic crisis and with a system that is a failure. The looming demographic time bomb, with a third of the population over sixty, is troubling. Emigration has led to the exodus of a quarter of a million Cubans over the last four years and the figure is likely to double. And now we have the election of someone as unpredictable as Donald Trump in the United States. The regime has already used up all its political time. It did not take advantage of the outreach from Barack Obama. Either Raul Castro takes on profound economic reform or the country collapses,” predicts the journalist.
Domínguez also believes repression will increase. “The regime has lost its greatest symbol. I believe that the physical attacks on opponents at the barricades will worsen. They’re going to play hardball.”
So begins a waiting period to see if the physical absence of Fidel Castro will lead to major reforms or will provoke greater retrenchment by the most conservative wing of the military dictatorship. But that is a story yet to be told.
Photo: On December 15, ten days before his death, Fidel Castro met with Vietnam’s President Tran Dai Quang (third from left) and a Vietnamese delegation. The woman behind Castro is his wife, Dalia Soto del Valle. The photo was arranged by Castro’s son Alex and his personal photographer, and is probably one of the last public images of the elderly leader. From El Nuevo Herald.