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Cuba Right after Castro’s Death

An American’s graphic perspective on Cuba during the time after Fidel Castro died

Late 2016 turned out to be a weird time to visit Cuba. Donald Trump had just won the U.S. election and seemed likely to overturn Barack Obama’s baseball detente. Then Fidel Castro died.

A bit of nature in the middle of urban Santiago. A paved street ends and a dirt path twists on through to another neighborhood. Not sure why I like this but it seems to depict the unfinished nature of Cuba. (Photo by Tom Sharpe)

I found out Nov. 26 when Cari, our housekeeper, brought breakfast up to the rooftop dining area overlooking Santiago de Cuba, in tears. “Mi commandante está muerto,” she said. She had just heard it on the radio. She explained to us in elementary Spanish how Fidel’s Revolution had improved life for “gente de color,” like herself, pointing to her brown arm.

Cari’s grief was genuine. But outside, on Padre Pico street, I found something else: loud wails coming from residences. It sounded forced, inauthentic and for show, like some of the memorials fashioned on doorsteps and notes lauding Castro with religious fervor. Baseball games, musical performances and alcohol sales were suspended for nine days. On TV, it was all Castro, all the time. Down at the Santiago cemetery, soldiers were preparing Fidel’s tomb behind a large plastic tarpaulin pinned to palm trees, adjacent to Jose Marti’s tomb. They shoo’ed me away when I started taking pictures.

One person I met that day in front of the Museum of the Clandestine Struggle was not up on the news or just didn’t care. He said he had gone to medical school in Moscow, interned in nuclear medicine in New York and returned to Cuba to work as a physician. But when he complained that drugs he ordered for his patients were being sidetracked to people with political connections, he was fired and unable to find another position as a physician. Of course, one never knows if someone is telling you the truth. But this guy’s English was flawless and he seemed to know his way around New York. He asked me to send a note to a friend there. Then this medical specialist asked me for a handout. “Pathetic, isn’t it?” he said. 

* Editor’s note: Tom Sharpe has spent most of his working life as a print journalist in New Mexico. He has visited Cuba twice and is now retired in Truth of Consequences, NM.

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