By Will Grant
It is hard to overstate exactly how important Fidel Castro was to Cubans. Whether he was their beloved revolutionary hero and liberator or if they saw him as a despot and tyrant, the name Castro has been an intrinsic part of their lives for decades. So adapting to the news that the 90-year-old Fidel Castro, lately more likely to be seen in tracksuits than olive-green fatigues, was gone has been difficult to digest for some.
A group of students appeared outside the law faculty he studied in in the 1950s, carrying Cubans flags, pictures of Fidel and holding up revolutionary slogans. Many were in tears, genuinely moved by the loss of a man they consider to have freed their country from Washington’s grasp. Elsewhere in Havana, people were more muted, perhaps a little quieter and more reflective as they sought out the state-run newspaper or paid for a little internet access.
The contrast with the picture across the Florida Straits couldn’t have been starker. For a second consecutive night, the atmosphere in Miami was one of partying and celebrating the news of his death. The anti-Castro Cuban American community has wanted Fidel out of their lives for decades. They just didn’t think they’d have to wait until he was 90 to get their wish.
The US cut ties with Cuba in 1961 amid rising Cold War tensions and imposed a strict economic embargo which largely remains in place more than half a century on.
Under President Barack Obama, the relationship warmed and diplomatic ties were restored in 2015.
Mr Obama said history would “record and judge the enormous impact” of Castro. America was extending “a hand of friendship to the Cuban people” at this time, he added.
A mourning period began on Saturday and will be observed in Cuba until the urn with Castro’s ashes is taken to the south-eastern city of Santiago de Cuba to be laid to rest there on 4 December.
Before that, a series of memorials will be held in Havana and Castro’s ashes will travel along the route of the Caravan of Freedom that took place in January 1959.
How Castro defied the U.S.
Throughout the Cold War, Fidel Castro was a thorn in Washington’s side.
An accomplished tactician on the battlefield, he and his small army of guerrillas overthrew the military leader Fulgencio Batista in 1959 to widespread popular support.
Within two years of taking power, he declared the revolution to be Marxist-Leninist in nature and allied Cuba firmly to the Soviet Union – a move that led to the missile crisis in 1962, bringing the world to the brink of nuclear war before the Soviet Union abandoned its plan to put missiles on Cuban soil.
Despite the constant threat of a US invasion as well as the long-standing economic embargo on the island, Castro managed to maintain a communist revolution in a nation just 90 miles (145km) off the coast of Florida.
Despised by his critics as much as he was revered by his followers, he maintained his rule through 10 US presidents and survived scores of attempts on his life by the CIA.
He established a one-party state, with hundreds of supporters of the Batista government executed. Political opponents have been imprisoned, the independent media suppressed. Thousands of Cubans have fled into exile.
How has the world reacted?
Many world leaders have paid tribute to Castro. Russian President Vladimir Putin described him as a “reliable and sincere friend” of Russia, while Chinese President Xi Jinping said his people had “lost a good and true comrade”.
The Soviet Union’s last leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, said: “Fidel stood up and strengthened his country during the harshest American blockade, when there was colossal pressure on him.”
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau came under fire on social media and from political opponents for describing Castro as a “remarkable leader”, who despite being a “controversial figure” made significant improvements to the education and healthcare of Cubans.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon acknowledged advances in education, literary and health under Castro, but said he hoped Cuba would “continue to advance on a path of reform, greater prosperity and human rights”.
Pope Francis, who met Castro, an atheist, when he visited Cuba in 2015, called his death “sad news”.
In Venezuela, Cuba’s main regional ally, President Nicolas Maduro said “revolutionaries of the world must follow his legacy”.
Credit: BBC News, www.bbc.com