Saturday, December 3, 2016 Santiago de Cuba, Cuba
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Trepidation and excitement mounted as I looked out over the harbor from the cruise ship deck. A rust bucket of a cargo ship was the only other vessel in port and precious little activity was occurring. The hazy mountain backdrop confirmed that the day would be hot and humid.
The cruise operators warned that the planned bus tour would be curtailed because the country was in mourning for the death Fidel Castro. His ashes were set to wind their way through the city streets later that day. There would be heightened security and no singing or dancing at the presentation we were to attend. The importance of being respectful was stressed.
Massive numbers of armed soldiers and police were not on the streets; no soldiers or policeman with AK-47s or any kind of rifle were in view. No riot gear, no helmets, no body armor—nada. Only twice did it appear we might have been watched. A lone man on the rusted cargo ship seemed to be conducting surveillance. One figure was on a roof top overlooking the crowds in Parque Céspedes. Neither appeared armed. The only working dogs in sight were drug sniffing cocker spaniels checking the passengers going through customs.
Evidence of a crumbling infrastructure was everywhere as we drove through the neat, clean wide streets. Billboards and advertisements were nonexistent. Pictures of the Castro brothers were only observed on a few houses and public buildings. At that early hour the traffic was minimal; a few autos, motorcycles, and horse drawn carts. Our first stop was the African Cultural Center where we were treated to the history of the African Cubans along with live singing and dancing despite being told that entertainment would not occur.
We returned to the harbor after passing by San Juan Hill where Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders made their charge in 1898 because the busses had to be off the streets by 10 a.m. Passengers were then free to roam the city unaccompanied until the ship left at 2 p.m. We made our way to the plaza, Parque Céspedes, where Castro delivered his first speech following Dictator Fulgencio Batista’s flight from Cuba in 1959.
The large plaza is bounded by a Catholic cathedral (Catedral de Nuestra de Senora de la Asuncion), the ayuntamiento (town hall), Casa de Diego Velazquez (oldest standing mansion in Cuba dating to 1515), and the 1914 hotel, Casa Grande. A jumbo Tron blasted Cuban news coverage of Castro’s life and the procession of his ashes. In the center, a display had been erected tracking the revolution and Castro’s life. A group of young school children in crisp, clean uniforms sat on a corner.
Little differentiated Cubans and tourists. Many Cubans carried cell phones. Most were friendly, smiling and even posing for pictures. It was not uncommon to find young Cubans who spoke English.
The crowd continued to build as we held our positions just behind the press and to the side of the television truck where a female reporter was giving updates. A few soldiers and a member of the TV crew kept the road around the press section of the plaza clear. The heat was sweltering; the crowd pressed. Occasionally the gathering would break into chants of “Yo soy Fidel. (I am Fidel)” or sing a patriotic song. The emotion seemed genuine and a few had tears in their eyes. Many waved Cuban flags. Some carried flowers.
Around noon several nondescript automobiles appeared, depositing a few dignitaries. Applause rose from the crowd. Later I would learn that Raul Castro, his family, and the Cuban Five (Cubans accused of spying on the U.S. and released from U.S. prison in 2014) were in that building. The cars, which did not appear new, were Geely’s, a Chinese brand favored by the Cuban government.
The crowd became animated around 12:45 p.m. as a helicopter circled briefly overhead. An immense army truck filled with reporters materialized, followed by two vehicles. Castro’s ashes then appeared on a small trailer pulled by an olive drab military jeep containing five military men in white gloves. The trailer held a glass case displaying his ashes underneath the Cuban flag. Two chase vehicles followed the ashes. The crowd melted away as the procession exited the plaza and continued to weave its way through the city streets.