Noisy jubilation, silent grief in a tale of two Havanas after Fidel Castro's death

By James Rothwell, Ruth Sherlock, Harriet Alexander

Funeral preparations were under way in Cuba as the country readies itself for a gathering of world leaders not seen since the death of Nelson Mandela.

Nine days of national mourning have been declared to mark Fidel Castro's death, at the age of 90.

He is believed to have died at his home, in a military base on the outskirts of Havana. Castro is survived by his second wife, Dalia Soto del Valle, and, it is believed, nine children - although no one ever knew for sure.

Plaza de la Revolucion, scene of so many of his epic speeches, was a place of pilgrimage yesterday. Cubans were flocking to the historic square, some inconsolable, to pay their respects. In contrast, there was jubilation in Miami, Florida, as Cuban Americans who despised the Castros danced in the streets.

Castro's ashes will travel across the island before a ceremony next Sunday in Santiago de Cuba, the second city,

US President Barack Obama could attend the funeral - ending his presidency with a gesture sealing a relationship he has worked so hard to build. Castro's Latin American alllies are certain to be there. Others who might go include former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, Russia's Vladimir Putin, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and China's Xi Jinping.

The first that Cubans heard of Fidel Castro's death was when his brother, Raul, appeared on television to announce the news, his voice shaking with emotion.

In Havana, people gathered around their radios as state broadcasters pumped out revolutionary anthems and recited the key achievements of their leader. As the news that the 90-year-old had died at his home spread, bars and restaurants across the city began closing their doors.

Just 370km away in Little Havana, Miami, impromptu parties broke out, whooping and cheers ringing out under the night sky. Castro had cast a long and foreboding shadow over Cuba's 850,000-strong exiled community.

A member of the Cuban community gets out of his car and chants anti-Castro slogans as he reacts to the death of Fidel Castro. Photo / AP
A member of the Cuban community gets out of his car and chants anti-Castro slogans as he reacts to the death of Fidel Castro. Photo / AP

Thousands flooded on to the streets as they banged on pots, waved Cuban flags and chanted "Cuba libre!" Many were still in their pyjamas.

One man waved a large sign depicting a cartoon devil wreathed in flames, alongside the message: "Satan, Fidel is now yours. Give him what he deserves. Don't let him rest in peace."

Before long, a life-size plastic skeleton with a Cuban cigar in its mouth was bobbing to-and-fro above a sea of jubilant Cuban-Americans.

But for Cubans back home, the death of their former leader was met with a mixture of grief, shock and a deep uncertainty over what the new era might bring.

On Saturday, people danced and swigged rum as usual on the seafront, unaware that the dictator had died. When someone arrived at Havana's Malecon docks to break the news to them, the nightclubs shut their doors and the crowds evaporated. Foreign tourists were asked to go back to their hotels as a mark of respect.

Cuban doctors working in Venezuela, hold a photo of Cuba's former leader Fidel Castro during a tribute to Castro at the military barracks where the remains of his closest ally. Photo / AP
Cuban doctors working in Venezuela, hold a photo of Cuba's former leader Fidel Castro during a tribute to Castro at the military barracks where the remains of his closest ally. Photo / AP

"The whole world will remember this man ... he achieved things nobody else did," said Duncy Fajardo, as he stood near Cuba's National Hotel, which hosted both Ernest Hemingway and Frank Sinatra before falling to communist nationalisation in 1959.

According to a dissident Cuban newspaper, many initially thought the reports of their leader's death were a hoax, Castro himself having once joked there were so many attempts on his life that "the day I die, no one will believe it".

In Biran, a small town on the north-eastern tip of the island where Castro was born, the family home was besieged by anxious locals asking whether the reports were true. Those early doubts were dispersed only when a newsreader in a sombre suit reappeared on state television and began reading out tributes from other Latin-American leaders.

"He was the guide for our people," said Mariela Alonso. "There will be no one else like him. We will feel his physical absence."

"Everyone feels the loss of this figure - this personality, this excellency, this man for all time," said Wildy Rodriguez, who runs a hotel in Baracoa, the oldest town in Cuba. He said: "There has never been - and never will be - anyone like him."

Members of the Cuban community dance in the street as they react to the death of Fidel Castro. Photo / AP
Members of the Cuban community dance in the street as they react to the death of Fidel Castro. Photo / AP

In Florida, the crowds so great that police had to block off the roads to traffic. "I want Fidel to be remembered as a tyrant who brought shame on the Cuban people," said Jorge Luis Triana, who was 15 when he suffered the wrath of the Castro regime.

Feeling rebellious at school one day, he pulled out his pen and scrawled "Down with Cuba!" on the white strip of the national flag in his classroom.

The punishment was swift and unforgiving. "They threw me in jail. I was in a cell for six years," he said. "They humiliated me, they beat me, they starved me. Because I was a political prisoner, the guards treated me as their toy."

He said the Government also banned him from leaving the country. It was only when his wife drew on her Spanish heritage to get them European passports that he was able to escape to America. In 2010, at the age of 41, Triana started a new life in Miami.

"It's sad that one finds joy in the death of a person, but that person should never have been born," said Pablo Arencibia, 67, a teacher who fled Cuba 20 years ago.

"I'm digging a hole for him," one man declared to a local news network while brandishing a shovel. "He did a lot of damage to our family. I am so happy." He said Castro's Government had thrown his relatives in prison and destroyed his father's business before the family fled to America.

Men hang a Cuban flag at the Foreign Relations Ministry in Havana, Cuba. Photo / AP
Men hang a Cuban flag at the Foreign Relations Ministry in Havana, Cuba. Photo / AP

More than three million people fled Castro's regime after he came to power in 1959, hundreds of thousands seeking refuge across the Florida Straits in Miami.

"I am shedding tears tonight, but they're tears of joy," said Armando Salguero, a columnist at the Miami Herald. "Hell has a special place for Fidel Castro, and there's one less vacancy in hell tonight."

An 84-year-old woman described it as "the happiest day of my life".

Castro's rule divided his family just as deeply and bitterly as his own people. While his brother, Raul, stayed by Castro's side to the end, his sister, Juanita, branded the dictator a "monster" and fled to Florida. His only daughter, Aline Fernandez, joined hundreds of thousands of Cubans who fled to Miami, and she remains among her father's harshest critics.

Days of mourning

• Cubans can show their respects for Fidel Castro tomorrow at the Havana memorial to national hero Jose Marti, a poet and leader of Cuba's 19th century fight for independence from Spain.

• Mourners will also be able to pay their respects on Wednesday at the memorial in the Plaza de la Revolucion as well as specially designated sites across the country.

• Officials say Castro will be cremated, but offer no details about how or when.

• Cubans will be called to a demonstration on Wednesday in the Plaza de la Revolucion.

• On Thursday, Castro's ashes will begin travelling eastward across Cuba in reverse to the route taken by his rebels from the Sierra Maestra mountains to the capital, Havana. The cortege is to take three days.

• Next Sunday, a mass commemoration will be held at the Antonio Maceo plaza in Santiago de Cuba, the largest city in the east.

• Castro's ashes are to be interred at the following day at the Santa Ifigenia cemetery, where Marti is also buried.

- Addtional reporting: AP

- Daily Telegraph UK

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