When I was born in Cuba, Fidel Castro was in power. When I left for exile in 1991, Fidel Castro was still in power. When I returned on Monday, November 28, 2016, Fidel Castro was a handful of ashes.
I didn’t travel to my birthplace as a journalist to cover the longest funeral in the history of that Caribbean island. Instead, I went as a guest of JetBlue on their inaugural flight from New York to Havana.
It had only been 24 hours after the announcement of Castro’s surprising death, yet the guidelines for national mourning were thrust upon citizen and foreigner alike: the use of bright colors was considered offensive; in some cases the consumption of alcohol was seen as disrespectful; listening to music, dancing or singing was unacceptable. Nothing new to me, as I grew up under Castro’s rule, where even pain and grief are imposed on you.
In the years since I left the island in 1991, I went back only a handful of times, mostly for work. This year alone, I went three times. First, to participate in a historic meeting of U.S. publishers and editors in Havana, later to shoot the September cover story for People en Español and now after Fidel’s death. In all my previous trips, I endured the same hassle Cubans traveling from the U.S. have had to endure for decades: high agency and charter flight prices, long lines at Miami International Airport and various control points before reaching the airline counters. This trip was different, so much so that it seemed I was flying domestic: my carry-on was not weighed, the flight was on time and the round-trip fare for this route was under $200.
Waiting for the plane to take off at New York’s JFK, the passengers —some Cuban-Americans, some Latin Americans and mostly Americans— were happily holding their own miniature Cuban flags. On the tarmac, two JetBlue employees waved U.S. and Cuban flags. When we landed in Havana, at Jose Marti International Airport, I also saw a U.S. flag waving alongside its Cuban counterpart outside Terminal 3. It was an incredible sight for a Cuban who grew up under a regime that branded the United States as the biggest enemy of the Cuban people.
The first thing we did upon leaving our luggage at the hotel was look for a paladar, which are small, family-run restaurants that have opened up all over Havana, usually in converted parts of old homes. We found one right across the street and sat down in a table on a terrace. The entire group ordered mojitos and daiquiris. We all lifted our glasses in a toast for JetBlue and for the possibility of freedom in a post-Fidel Cuba.
Yes, the country around us was seemingly in mourning. Condolence books were set out in schools, with older people safeguarding them. I didn’t see a single person sign. Every time I asked someone if he or she had gone to the Plaza de la Revolución, Havana’s main square where the memorial for Fidel Castro was taking place, they would lift an eyebrow —reminding me of the same gesture perfected by the iconic Mexican actress Maria Felix— and would say something to the effect of: “Why? To see a picture and a couple of medals? I would have to see an open casket to make sure he’s really dead.”
I understood their mistrust. In the Cuba I grew up in —one where Fidel crowned himself king for almost five decades, passed the throne to his brother and created a Caribbean monarchy— everyone lived in fear after years of being monitored during our private phone conversations or feared being reported to the authorities by a neighbor for stepping inside a church or accepting a call from a family member in Miami.
No doubt, Fidel Castro’s death is symbolic. For many Cuban exiles, he died the day he retired and named his brother Raul as his successor. Yes, the Castro regime remains in power at least until 2018, when Raul will pass on the baton to another family member or friend. But I can understand how many of their victims, those exiles who lost their family members and possessions and were expelled from their country, have been overcome with feelings of joy and relief. The path to change is undeniable. It may be a long time coming, but one thing is for sure: no one can outrun time. Cuba must open its door to the 21st century, the people deserve that.
Back in Havana, I asked the taxi driver who took me back to the airport if she had gone to the Plaza the night before, where thousands had gathered. She turned around to look at me and gravely said: “If I don’t drive this taxi, my children have nothing to eat. The ones who went there were taken out of their workplaces and schools in trucks and buses.”
She then began to change the radio stations looking for something that wasn’t funeral related. From station to station, the same woman’s voice came out in an oppressive litany: “I see Fidel in all the buildings, in the schools, in the hospitals, in the streets, in the sidewalks, in the clouds, in the stars.” From there, she went on to recite parts of her face: “I see him in my hair, in my ears, in my eyebrows, in my eyes, in my nose, in my mouth…” When it seemed like the radio announcer would start naming more intimate body parts further south, the taxi driver turned off the radio and whispered: “Even dead, he’s still screwing us over.”