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Hasta siempre, Comandante!

“Come again? What is it you are asking me?!”, Iris exclaims. A group of us are having dinner at a cosmopolitan restaurant in the centre of Havana after the closing party for the annual conference of the Cuban Institute of Anthropology. Iris – a postgraduate student at the Institute – is the only Cuban amongst us. The question, from which she is visibly reeling, came from Carlito, a young Mexican professor visiting Cuba for the first time. “I mean, do you think people here are prepared… for when Fidel… well, when he dies. How will they take it?”, Carlito repeats his question awkwardly – a question he had posed completely out of the blue, a propos nothing, other than being in Cuba and having the opportunity to put it to a Cuban. As I later worked out, the time was more or less exactly 10.30pm. “What a question… I don’t know… It’s not something… We don’t really… What can I say to you about such a thing?”, Iris stuttered.

I get home around 11.30, at my rented apartment, a block away from the restaurant. For once I don’t turn on the TV, exhausted as I am from four days of conferencing and seeing friends on the side. I’m only here for a week and, having come to Cuba more often than usual in the past couple of years for a new project on the anthropology of revolution,[1] I have lots of people and news to catch up with. The next day – my birthday, as it happens – would be my first free one since I got here. So I had plans to spend the day with friends and go out to dinner in the evening.

Click to enlarge

Illustration by Ed Linfoot

At 3am I get woken up by a text on my phone. Given the time-difference, I think in my sleep, this can only be from home, the UK. Then another one, and then a little later two more. If it were important they’d call, I tell myself. When I wake up properly at 7.30am I look at my phone and there are six messages, all variations on the theme: “Fidel is dead!”

Fidel is dead?! F i d e l? D e a d? I feel a chill running up my spine (I still do now as I write this…). “Hasta siempre Comandante”, one of the messages reads.

I turn on the TV. A news presenter is interviewing a guest – is it Soto, the great high-jumper? – who is talking about Fidel, but soon she interrupts him for a face-to-camera: “Estimados televidentes… dear viewers, I am bound to inform those of you who just joined us that our Commander in Chief died last night. At 22.29, on the 25th of November, as announced by Comrade General Raul Castro Ruz to the Cuban people an hour later through this medium, el Comandante en Jefe Fidel Castro Ruz has deceased”.

The awkward exchange of the previous night flashes through my mind – a coincidence I can hardly compute. What time could it have been… surely after ten… more like ten-thirty… could it even have been 22.29? But what on earth could have possessed that man to ask such a question just at that moment! Forget the Cuban spirit-mediums and diviners I’ve been studying ethnographically for all these years. If I ever need a seer, I’m going to Mexico.


Mexico is where Fidel, his brother Raul, Che Guevara, Camilo Cienfuegos, and all the other impossibly young bearded men had boarded Granma, the pleasure yacht that arrived on the south-eastern shores of the island exactly 60 years earlier, to start the revolutionary guerrilla campaign that swept across the island, from East to West, and brought Castro to power on New Year’s Day in 1959 – this being the ‘Triumph of the Revolution’, as Cubans always refer to it. (By contrast, ‘the revolution’ – la revolución – refers to the whole process of social, economic and political transformation that this event initiated, which is still with us today, even when Fidel himself is gone.) A big event was planned for this weekend to celebrate the anniversary of Granma’s arrival (the boat itself is permanently memorialised in the name of the Communist Party’s official newspaper – Cuba’s Pravda is Granma) but this, as the TV presenter announces a little later, will be postponed. The country will be in mourning for nine days.

By lunchtime, the implications of this, as well as the ceremonial sequence that will consume public life on the island for the coming days, are revealed. On Monday and Tuesday there will be a chance for the people to pay tribute to Fidel at different monuments across the island, and most prominently at the Memorial of Jose Martí at the Plaza de la Revolución in the centre of Havana – the imposing obelisk dedicated to the 19th century national independence hero and intellectual. This ‘act of the masses’ (acto de masas), as the TV presenter calls it in the socialist-revolutionary argot, will culminate in a mass rally there on Tuesday night, and as of Wednesday the ceremonial theatre will make its way from Havana back to Santiago de Cuba, in the east, where it all began exactly 60 years ago. Fidel’s ashes (he asked to be cremated) will be taken backwards on the route of the so-called Caravan of Liberty – the trajectory along which Fidel led the victorious revolutionary convoy all the way to the seat of government in Havana, in the first few days of 1959. This odd symbolic reversal of the political cosmogony of the Revolution (I’m still unable to make up my mind what it means) is to end on the 3rd of December with another ‘act of the masses’, this time in Plaza Antonio Maceo, the central square of Santiago. It will be followed by the inhumation of the ashes on the 4th, in the cemetery of Santa Ifigenia, where Jose Marti is also buried. Only Fidel could match Marti’s stature in the nation’s eyes.

I have three days left before I return to London. Three days of fieldwork at a momentous time. But first: cancel my birthday arrangements.


It’s Saturday noon, and Mercedes, my landlady, comes up to my flat for a coffee. Coffees in Cuba go in a flash, like shots, but Mercedes is lingering. I’ve known her and her family for a couple of years now, and we’ve discussed the revolution a lot in the past, so I know that Fidel’s death is a blow to her. “He gave us todo, todo, todo, todo, todo”, she repeats, as if to survey all the regions of that ‘everything’ that in her eyes Fidel bestowed.[2] She’s upset, and it’s obvious that she’s been crying. As she has told me in the past, she’s an avowed ‘Fidelista’, even though, these days, after all she’s seen, she wouldn’t necessarily call herself a ‘revolucionaria’. In many ways Mercedes is an exemplary case of what the revolution has done for ordinary people in Cuba. It did indeed give her a whole life. Dark-skinned and from a poor rural family, Mercedes was still a teenager when she was brought to Havana in 1960, as part of the newly instituted Cuban Women’s Federation’s (FMC) programme for rural women’s training on sewing machines – one of the many mass campaigns instituted for disadvantaged segments of the population in the first years of the revolution. It was only with the support of the FMC that she was able to finish her school education in the early ‘60s, and then work her way up in various jobs in state administration in Havana, ending up as a telephonist in the Ministry of Interior – a responsible post reserved for committed revolutionaries. (She also became a member of the Communist Party at that time, though when she retired in the early 2000s she renounced her membership, fed up with the opportunistic scheming and the nepotism, as she once explained to me.)

The idea that Fidel’s grandeur (and the revolution’s – the two are in many ways synonymous) comes down to his capacity to ‘give’ is one I have come across repeatedly in Cuba. A lazy gloss on this would be cast in the language of ‘paternalism’, and there was certainly a strong dose of that in Fidel’s leadership. In fact, the comment I got again and again as I called my friends throughout the morning to offer my condolences and cancel the birthday-do was the same: “We’ve grown up with him, I feel I’ve lost a father”. But to dismiss this as just a matter of political paternalism fails to capture the depth and subtlety of feeling – political feeling – that people are struggling to express when they say that in Fidel they have lost a father. Perhaps there’s a deeper question here about the significance of care as the basic premise of revolutionary politics. Less like the way a liberal might imagine the state – for example, as a guarantor of peace, liberty and security – and more like a Christian might conceive of God, the project of revolution that Fidel personified stands or falls by the care it is able to show for the people in whose name it was instigated. Fidel ‘gave’ because his ultimate role was to care.

He was a leader. Not like the other one”, Mercedes continues – ‘the other one’, here, referring to Fidel’s brother Raúl, who has been running the country since 2006, when Fidel first fell seriously ill. Again, the standard comment is that Raul is less charismatic than Fidel, more aloof in style, but perhaps also less megalomaniac, and more prudent and pragmatic. Still, I find the explanation given by Mercedes far more interesting: “Fidel made himself small”, she says, crouching her back as she emphasises the word. “He lowered himself when he spoke to you. The brother doesn’t know how to do that”. Part of what Fidel ‘gave’ to people, it seems, was himself. A very Christian thought, it strikes me. And a peculiarly Catholic one in its emphasis on the intimacy of divine power. That, after all, is what the Virgin and all the different Saints do in places like Cuba: ‘lower’ themselves from the otherwise commanding heights of divine transcendence, the more intimately to commune with the faithful.


By Cuban standards it’s a chilly day, and there’s something forlorn on the faces of the people I see on the street later on in the afternoon. Is it in my mind, or do people’s emotions leak into the atmosphere in this way? I remember asking myself a similar question walking in my neighbourhood in Camberwell a few years ago, when the so-called ‘riots’ were happening in 2011 – I have now that uncertain sense of ‘something in the air’ that I had then, only now it’s shock and grief I’m feeling the air for, rather than fear and impending violence. Admittedly, the feeling is somewhat punctured by an acquaintance I bump into on 23rd Street, which seems somehow less busy than usual. “He lived his life, and now he’s dead. We are the ones who have to carry on living in this.” ‘This’ (esto) is what people in Cuba sometimes call their society/country/socialism/revolution/situation – they’re all one thing in a sense, indeed they are ‘everything’. “He had his life, but now what about ours? That’s what I have to think about, every day. See you later bro!”, Cuban handshake (loud and big like a smack in the hand), and he’s off.

I turn the corner and I’m at Habana Libre – the imposing hotel that had been built as a Hilton just a couple of years before the Triumph of the Revolution, only to get nationalised afterwards, and which later became the site of one of the many comical CIA-sponsored attempts to assassinate Fidel (the one where a barman is meant to put a poisoned capsule in Fidel’s milkshake, but the capsule ends up getting stuck on the ice of the freezer).

I’ve come to check my emails. Admittedly, these days one can log on to the same state WiFi service for $2 outdoors, on main streets like 23rd (although this is still way too expensive for most Cubans). But I’m in the habit of going to the hotels, which before the ‘openings’ in relations with the US, initiated by Raúl and Obama a couple of years ago, were the only place where foreigners like me could connect to the internet. But not today, as it turns out. “Only for guests at the hotel, I’m afraid”, the lady at the internet counter informs me, “the country is in mourning”. “What on earth has the internet got to do with mourning?”, I ask. “No idea,” she says. “Director’s instructions.”


Sunday morning. I’ve arranged to go for lunch at a friend’s house at San Miguel del Padron, a working-class neighbourhood in the sprawling backwaters of Havana tourists never see. The situation here is very much a ‘barrio’ – it’s a tight-knit neighbourhood, with laughter and arguments flying out of the windows onto the street, frequent fighting (last time I was here stones were being thrown), and lots of partying, especially on Sundays, when there’s little else to do than put on REALLY LOUD reggeaton and get wasted on the kind of rum that can give you permanent brain damage. But again, not today. “See how quiet everyone is?”, my middle-aged friend comments as we sit in the kitchen waiting for her mother and stepfather to arrive. “I’m surprised, since lots of the kids in the neighbourhood barely knew him. Not like us… He had us controlled for all that time, may he rest in peace”, adds an elderly neighbour who’s drinking coffee with us. “Yes”, my friend adds, “no music, no drinking – never seen anything like it! But how long will they hold out, the kids… It’s too much! Nine days? Already I see people fretting – no soap-opera, just old documentaries and speeches. People are going to go mad – nothing to do!”

My friend’s mother arrives a little later – she and her husband live a short bus-ride away. “The transport is horrendous today”, she reports. “They are preparing for tomorrow, and taking buses off the routes, for the workers”, she explains, referring to the workplace-based convoys that form the backbone of mass events in Cuba, and which are evidently aiming for a show of strength in the tribute that will be taking place at the Plaza de la Revolución in the following two days. “Will you be going to the Plaza tomorrow?”, I ask. “I might do, but there are too many people…”, the mother tells me. “We’ll be seeing it on the TV anyway!”, the daughter pitches in, continuing on her theme of the media blackout.

As the conversation goes on over lunch, however, it begins to dawn on me that the blackout may go further than just the state TV programming. It turns out that the reason why my friend’s stepfather won’t be coming to the lunch is that he has been put on guard at the municipal logistics agency where he works. Having been in the military (including on mission in Angola with the Cuban Revolutionary Armed Forces during the war with South Africa in the 1980s), he is now in charge of security at the food dispensary for municipal employees, as well as a ranking delegate of the local branch of the Communist Party. “They have been on alert since Friday night”, his wife tells me, matter of fact. “He got a call around midnight and I’ve barely seen him since – he has to stay at the dispensary.” “Why such vigilance?”, I ask. “Oh, it’s always like that when something happens. They have to control things.” The daughter, who herself works privately as a cleaner at a guesthouse for tourists, confirms: “Yes, at work we had the security guys from immigration (a branch of the Ministry of Interior) checking each of the guests on the register. They were asking my boss who everyone is, whether there are any journalists. They are controlling everything since yesterday. You’ll have been given a looking over too!”, she says, smiling. “But what are they so afraid of?”, I continue to press. Apparently there have been some demonstrations in the centre of town – “the Ladies in White perhaps… You know, the usual”, my friend says with an air or resignation. “But that’s not it… It’s just that it’s a complicated time, and they need to keep things under control.” “They know what they are doing…”, her mother says, and changes topic.

Later in the evening, back at the centre at another friend’s house, I watch the news on the so-called ‘antena’ – the illegal TV-signal from the US that more and more people in Cuba pay clandestine providers to connect to. There are indeed reports of small gatherings of protesters in Havana and elsewhere on the island during the day. As usual, these were immediately quashed by the state security forces. How do the Miami-based networks get journalists into Cuba? I’ve always wondered about that… But now I find myself wondering whether that strange withdrawal of the internet service at the hotel earlier was not a part of the security clamp-down. It seems that for a country that has felt under siege for so long, ‘national mourning’, as the lady at the hotel had said, is willy nilly a national security alert.


I’ve been warned about how many people there would be, so I’m out of the door at 7am, on my way to the tribute at the Plaza de la Revolución, which starts at nine. Conscious of the fact my previous experiences doing ethnography of public events have been only in religious contexts, I’m trawling across the centre of town looking for congregations of people heading towards the Plaza. Half way there, I bump into a throng of sleepy-looking teenagers pouring out of their school building, with teachers issuing directions none too sombrely. I mix in with them to see how it feels. They’re wearing the Pioneer uniforms children wear to school, which I’ve always found somehow moving (a great source of scholarly, if not necessarily political, pride for the wearer), but that on this occasion serve only to differentiate me from the crowd. Since this is exactly what I wanted to avoid, I break off a few blocks away from the Plaza and make my own way to what looks like a queue, outside the Teatro Nacional – an impressive modernist building where I’ve watched many shows in the past, but which today serves as one of three entry-points into the memorial space of the Plaza, as we’ve been regularly informed by the state TV over the weekend.

Although there is no line as such – more a block – people are conscious of being in a queue, and all the talk is of the practicalities ahead. When will we be allowed to move past the barriers the state security and police have prepared to control passage into the theatre? There are two tasks ahead of us, and they seem to be sequenced. First, someone in front of me says, we have to sign the solemn oath to the Revolution that the TV has been talking about. But there are so many people, will there be enough books, or will it take ages? And then we’ll proceed to the obelisk at the centre of the Plaza, where Fidel’s ashes will be. “First we sign and then we cry”, I risk the joke, but no-one is amused and I feel stupid and foreign. But soon I’m at one with the crowd again, as we all turn in indignation to a phalanx of medical professionals who flank us rapidly on the right side and start pushing forwards. “Sixty years of this”, someone says angrily, “and we still haven’t learnt how to queue!” “Doctors don’t like queues!”, someone else shouts out. That’s when I realize, most of the people around me have been bussed in from their workplaces. The busses my friend’s mother was talking about yesterday are lining up behind us, all along Paseo, the grand avenue that leads up to the Plaza from the North.

At 8.30 on the dot the barriers are opened and within a couple of minutes the amorphous block of people is turned into an orderly file of individuals lining up following instructions from the state security guards, who are themselves lined up alongside the queue at regular intervals, controlling things. We are shown into the foyer of the theatre. Twenty or more tables are lined up, and on them rest large and official-looking notebooks, with blank lined pages open and ready to be signed. “Sign and print your name”, the security officers instruct us. Above the notebooks there is a large placard displaying an extract from Fidel’s iconic attempt, in his Mayday speech of 2000, to define what a revolution is: “Revolution is a sense of historical moment; it is changing everything that needs changing; it is full equality and liberty;…”, and so it goes on, teetering on poetry.

I sign my name, wondering whether I should put my nationality next to it. I decide not to, still doing penance for my earlier remark. In any case, one thing I know about Fidel’s oft cited attempt at definition is that it renders the concept of revolution a classic case of what Lévi-Strauss called a ‘floating signifier’: a word that means nothing in particular because it can mean nigh anything. Although perhaps the point is that Fidel meant it to mean, again, everything.

Moved on by the guards as soon as I had signed, I soon find myself joining another orderly queue, this time on a line stretching into the vast expanse of the Plaza. Built, ironically, in the late 1950s by Fulgencio Batista – the dictator the revolution deposed – the Plaza has an unmistakably fascist feel to it. Monumentally enormous and somehow constitutively empty, it is surrounded by government buildings, bearing gigantic murals of the two archetypal martyrs of the Revolution, Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos, as seen from countless angles on tourist postcards.

The sun is now up and, as we wait in line to proceed towards the Memorial, a white woman in her 60s manhandles me in jest, placing me between herself and the sun’s already hot rays. “You’ll do – you’re tall!’, she jokes. That’s an ethnographer’s cue if ever I’ve heard one. “Are you here with your workmates?’ I ask her. “No, on my own. I came nice and early and from what I see we’ll be out of here by 9.10”, she smiles. “Yes, it’s incredibly well organized”, I agree. “Well if there’s one thing that works in this country it’s the security services.” There’s irony in the comment, but I can’t be sure if it’s intentional and I’m not burning myself again. “Well, today the transport seems to be working well too”, I say, hedging my bets and pointing at the buses lined up along Paseo in the distance. “I’m local”, she replies, “so I walked. But for this I would have come from anywhere. This has really affected me. I haven’t slept much…” Her voice is breaking but, keeping her composure, she adds solemnly: “He was so immense we thought he’d be eternal.”

As we wait there are periodic ripples of chanting that run down the queue: “PATRIA O MUERTE – VENCEREMOS!” The action seems formulaic – people join in and then seamlessly resume their chatting – but the international press, who are running up and down alongside the queue with cameras and microphones, are loving it. A Spanish journalist approaches the group just behind me asking for volunteers for an interview. Soon one woman in the company is speaking to the camera. I didn’t hear the question, but the reply is bellicose: “We have fought all our lives for our Revolution and no-one is going to stand in our way, in the way of our dreams. No-one, not the Yankees, not the people in Miami, nobody. This is our country and our revolution, and we’ll defend them till the end!” Two men just to the side of us are rolling their eyes. “Fuck this – just listen to her! I tell you man, keep that microphone away from me!”, one of them says. His friend giggles quietly and my lady also smiles.

At 9am on the dot there are 21 cannon shots, firing in the distance, and the queue is immediately on the move. There’s a perfunctory security check at the foot of the mound on which the Memorial sits, and in the process I lose my ethnographic companion. I’m on my own, climbing the mound in single file under the supervision of the security personnel. To my right there’s a descending line of people who’ve already been inside. Some of them are crying – sobbing even. Others just look grim.

Before I know it I’m in the Memorial. But I see no ashes – just a huge photograph of Fidel in his youth (the famous one from the time of the guerrilla in the Sierra Maestra, looking into the distance with a warrior’s rucksack on his back), a series of his medals on display, and a small guard of honour standing to attention. I try to take it all in but we aren’t allowed to linger, and in fewer than 10 seconds, I think, I’m back out in the sun, descending the hill, feeling a little short-changed. I’m frankly perplexed by the fact that others around me are as affected as they seem. Ahead of me I see the lady from before, so I hasten my step to catch up with her. “Did you like it?” she asks me. I know that tone. It’s the tone people in Cuba use when they speak to foreigners about those things foreigners are expected to have come to Cuba for: beaches, salsa, Afro-Cuban folklore and the like. “It went too quickly”, I say. “Well, I’m glad I came”, she counters a little curtly. “Have a good day my child”, and she walks off.


It wasn’t until I was sitting in the plane back to London, later that day, that I began to reflect on my remarkable ethnographic ‘luck’ at having been in Cuba for these extraordinary few days. Most poignant in my mind was the way two elderly ladies who had lived the whole revolution, and loved Fidel through thick and thin, had between them articulated for me the power of his character and, with it, the character of his power. This is nothing short of an anthropological theory of charisma, it strikes me now, precisely expressed in a morphological idiom: a man who makes himself smaller than he is, even as he is so immense as to seem eternal. The ineffability of charisma as a matter of social shape-shifting.

  1. [1]The project is funded by the European Research Council (ERC-2013-CoG, 617970, CARP).
  2. [2]‘Everything’ is a resonant word in revolutionary Cuba. In one of his most cited speeches, known as Words to the Intellectuals, delivered in 1961, Fidel famously and portentously declared: ‘within the revolution everything, against the revolution nothing’.

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