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All eyes on Havana as Cuba bids farewell to Castro

Al Jazeera Al Jazeera 28/11/2016 Alan Fisher
A supporter of Fidel Castro reacts as she attends a tribute ceremony, following the announcement of the death of Cuban revolutionary leader Castro outside the Cuban Embassy, in Mexico City, Mexico November 27, 2016. Mourning Castro

The road from the understandably chaotic Havana airport to the city centre takes you down the long straight of Presidential Avenue. On the left is the park where, on a normal Saturday night, groups of young people gather, play music, smoke and tease each other, all competing for the biggest laugh.

But normal has changed in Cuba. Normal is knowing that Fidel Castro is there. No longer in power perhaps , but still the dominant political figure. That piece of normal ended late on Friday night.

The first indication something had changed was the police. They moved through the bars and the nightclubs telling them to close. There was no explanation, and there was no argument. This is a place where you do what you’re told. Public performances were cancelled. The groups of young people in the park were told to go home.

Then came the presidential announcement. Raul Castro, who fought beside his brother in the 1959 revolution that brought Communism to Cuba and later succeeded him as President, appeared on state TV and told the nation that Fidel had gone. 

Driving through the city on Saturday night, the streets were almost deserted. The old style cabs on the road, a throwback to pre-revolution Cuba, seemed to be ferrying only journalists arriving from all directions to their government-assigned hotels.

There was no huge outpouring of grief like in China after Mao died or Russia when Stalin passed. People here didn’t seem to know how to react. But in a place where everything is so tightly controlled, they hadn’t been told how to.

The news of Castro’s death was not a surprise but still a shock. He had been ill for some time.

One of the most recognisable global figures of the last 60 years, he was more than just a part of history; he created it, shaped it and left his stamp upon it in the way few ever do.

READ MORE: Cuban leader Fidel Castro's mixed legacy

As I walked through the streets of Havana on Sunday, I asked one man what he thought about Castro’s death.

“He was part of the past, but not part of the future and certainly not part of our future," he said.

There are those who revered him. He brought massive changes in healthcare, education, and literacy in Cuba, but political opponents were jailed or killed, thousands - some suggest millions - were driven into exile, and any dissent was brutally suppressed. He was president for a long time, but there were no elections, no opposition, no alternative to the revolution.

In the markets in a working class area of the city, Marta Fonseca was buying bananas. She’s 78. She saw Castro for the first time when his troops drove the capital, routing the forces of the US-backed leader Fulgencio Batista. She remembers the excitement it produced. And she aches at his death.

“It’s a deep pain I feel because of the loss. For those born after the revolution have no understanding what he represents to us. He liberated us from evil”.

Global reaction has been mixed, from world leaders who praised Castro and what he did, to those who offered condolences to the Cuban people and condemned what he did.

The eyes of the world will be on this island state now. Raul Castro had introduced modest reforms, opening up opportunities for small businesses while still protecting the state monoliths and monopolies. There are those who say he wanted to go further but did not want to upset his ailing brother. Now he has the opportunity to move things as far and as fast as he wants, restrained only by his need to protect himself and those around him.

There are no statues dedicated to Castro in Cuba. He didn’t want that. There are no roads named in his honour. That will almost certainly change now that he has died. Streets where young people will gather again and get on with life as normal.

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