Saturday, December 3 was the day that the caravan carrying Fidel Castro’s ashes was to arrive in Santiago. Because of traffic and road closure concerns we decided to go with the flow and focus on people photography as the masses thronged to Plaza de Marte and Parque Cespedes to say farewell to Fidel.
First was breakfast at the casa. I went down at the agreed upon time and my hostess pointed back upstairs. I looked suitably confused and she called my host out and he said “Your breakfast will be served on the rooftop terrace.” So back up the narrow, steep concrete stairs; then up an even narrower and steeper set of metal stairs where I found this lovely view of red rooftops, the harbor, and the neighbor’s laundry. I was served a variety of fruits, juice, cheese, tea and what they called an omelette which was really just flat scrambled eggs. I
was offered bread but was still deluding myself that I could stick to my diet and had refused. That didn’t last long, of course.
Our group congregated at 10 am and walked up a pedestrian street toward
the plaza. Mostly I photographed signs like this little guy who is apparently the mascot for some store chain as I saw him everywhere. I tried googling Chaguito but the answers all came up in Spanish. Son, I am told is the Cuban term for Salsa dancing so this place, it seems is a dance studio.
There were some crossed signals between our local guide and our photography guide and some of us spent a lot of time waiting for a rendezvous that never happened. I arrived at the Plaza at 11am. It was hot and shade was scarce. Fortunately, I had a hat and most people were lining the streets so seating was not that hard to come by. Many people were wise to have brought umbrellas for shade. And yes, the people photography was exceptional. Though in truth, I am not a people photographer so I can honestly say this was without question my least favorite day of the trip.
The parade finally passed by around 1 pm and didn’t last long at all. It consisted of a couple of vans and an army truck full of journalists and a jeep pulling a little trailer with a box bearing Fidel’s ashes covered by a Cuban Flag. The national anthem (I guess) was sung and some people cried, some people held up signs saying Yo Soy Fidel which I later learned means “I am Fidel”, which I interpreted to mean the spirit of Fidel lives in me. Some high school kids also had it painted on their faces. Flags were passed out and some brought their own. There were also posters of Castro to be had. I kicked myself later for not grabbing one for posterity.
I feel compelled to say a few words about Castro and Cuba at this point. I want to say up front that I do not have enough information to judge Castro, one way or another, and neither, my friends, do you. Churchill once said of Russia “It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma…” and I feel very strongly that this also applies to Cuba today. Cuba has free education, including college and it has one of the highest literacy rates in the world. Cuba has free medical care and it has one of the lowest infant mortality rates in the world. At the same time, I saw people living in conditions that I can only describe as abject poverty. Not everyone but many. Buildings, in general are not well maintained. Cars are held together with bubble gum and baling wire. Our guide(Lionel, pronounced Lee-o-nel) was reluctant to tell us what average incomes are in Cuba. “Oh, it varies.” He would say. But he did say that if someone had a relative in the United States willing to send them $100 a month they didn’t have to work. He also stressed that money isn’t important to most Cubans, they value family relations and friendships. I have to say that during my time in the first casa I saw so many people coming and going I couldn’t keep track of who lived there and who was just visiting but they all seemed to be having a good time.
I also saw many people in the streets hustling for money. Food carts were commonplace. Beggars with hard luck stories would hound you until you looked them square in the eye and said an emphatic no, and that might not be enough to get rid of them. I saw one fellow begging in the square and later he walked by me as I was sitting on a step. He had changed to much nicer clothes and he had the nerve to smile and wave as he strode purposefully by. They would give you little gifts and then reel you in for the kill to sell you jewelry or cigars. Free enterprise may not be the norm in Cuba but it is clearly not dead.
But getting back to Castro, what I have been able to glean from reading and listening is that probably many people’s lives improved under Castro from what they had been under Batista and earlier imperialistic regimes, especially minorities or oppressed majorities, i.e. women, and the descendants of former slaves. I saw many people looking pensive or downright sad. Were they mourning Castro, worried for their futures or just reflecting on the past?
The economy of Cuba collapsed with the fall of the Soviet Union and has never completely recovered. There appears to be a group of rich Cuban Americans with axes to grind because they lost their property and position during Castro’s revolution who are lobbying to stand in the way of normalization of relations with the United States. A little American money goes a long way and things are changing rapidly in Cuba, as they should. Raul Castro will be retiring in 2018 and the heir apparent is of a new generation. I will be interested to see where they are in five or ten years.
After the event broke up our guide took us to a very nice privately owned restaurant for lunch. The food was good, the menu quite varied and the water was cold (hallelujah!). I had Shrimp and bacon skewers. Our guide had yummy looking pork chops. One person had a half chicken, others had
lamb. There was rice and French fries on the side.
After lunch I strolled back to the casa for a nap and to download pictures. Proving that life goes on I captured boys and girls of all ages playing with balls.
The group reconvened for dinner around 7pm. Lionel said nothing was open but the hotel and we just wanted a snack to tide us over after our big lunch so off we went. Just as we were getting there this guy comes along saying “Hey, you want cerveza? you want Mojito? You want rooftop terrace? Come with me.” So, we went with him and were taken to a restaurant on a back street. Up three flights of stairs we came to a rooftop deck and settled in and ordered beer, at which point the guy disappeared. We were told no, we couldn’t have beer unless we ordered food. We said fine bring the beer and we’ll order food. Reluctantly the girl brought us each a can of Cristal one of the two national beers. We still weren’t very hungry so we ordered some appetizers. No, this wasn’t enough, she was going to be in big trouble. I felt guilty and ordered an entrée. She refused to bring us a second beer. Somehow the owner got involved. Lionel had to turn on all his charm. Eventually the owner agreed to give us one more beer. The appetizers came and the girl came and told me they didn’t have what I had ordered did I want something else. I said I didn’t really want it in the first place just bring me a shrimp cocktail. Which when it came turned out to be shrimp mixed with mayonnaise, not cocktail sauce. All in all I was very happy to slink back down the three flights of stairs and be delivered back to Parque Cespedes for the short walk back to my casa.