Monday 5 December 2016

Tourists in Cuba find island dominated by mourning for Fidel Castro

Published 28/11/2016 | 05:56

Tourists take selfies with an image of Cuba's revolutionary hero Che Guevara in the background, at Revolution Square in Havana (AP)
Tourists take selfies with an image of Cuba's revolutionary hero Che Guevara in the background, at Revolution Square in Havana (AP)

Tourists who went to Havana for salsa music and mojitos ended up wandering through a city turned silent by nine days of national mourning for Fidel Castro.

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As Cuba prepares a massive commemoration for the leader of its socialist revolution, tens of thousands of high-season travellers have found themselves accidental witnesses to history - and smack in the middle of a sombre city that is far from its usual exuberant self.

Tens of thousands of Cubans were expected to return to the streets on Monday after 9am local time when simultaneous 21-gun salutes will sound in the capital and in the eastern city of Santiago, where Castro launched his revolution in 1953.

At the same moment, Cubans are expected to begin filing through the monument to national hero Jose Marti in the centre of Havana's Plaza of the Revolution, where the government said they would "render homage and sign a solemn oath to carry out the concept of revolution expressed by the revolutionary leader".

The government did not say if the ashes of the 90-year-old former president would be on display inside the monument. Virtually all schools and government offices were closing during the homage to Castro, which will stretch for 13 hours on Monday and take place again on Tuesday, ending in a rally echoing those that he addressed on the plaza for most of his time in power.

On Wednesday, Castro's ashes will begin a three-day procession east across Cuba, retracing the march of his bearded rebel army from the Sierra Maestra mountains to the capital. Castro's ashes will be interred on Sunday in Santa Ifigenia cemetery in Santiago, Cuba's second-largest city.

"Who knows what tomorrow or after nine days brings in terms of the country and what happens for the future," said Graham Palmer, a 36-year-old financial director from London.

"And I think we will certainly look back at the airport tomorrow and feel quite privileged that we've been here."

"We picked up the (Communist Party) Granma paper from yesterday, so we've got that," said his companion, 36-year-old marketing worker Emma Taylor.

"I think we could quite even think about framing it," Mr Palmer said. "It's quite poignant."

Yet they and other travellers said that in addition to the awe at being present as Cubans honour one of the 20th century's most influential leaders, there is a tinge of regret at seeing such a subdued Havana.

Many museums have closed their doors, and a state-sanctioned ban on live music has meant cancelled concerts and closed nightspots including the famed Tropicana nightclub.

Old Havana is eerily devoid of the roving troubadours whose Buena Vista Social Club croonings normally echo through the cobblestone streets. And the 1950s classic cars that function as collective taxis are doing without the usual reggaeton at maximum volume.

Mr Palmer and Ms T aylor spent Sunday roaming the city and checking out its colonial architecture. They tried the door of the National Fine Arts Museum in the afternoon, but it was closed.

They decided to head to Plaza of the Revolution the next day in the hope of seeing the mass tributes to Castro, including a nine-storey portrait of him that has joined the towering images of fallen guerrillas there.

"That could potentially be I guess the profound moment, or kind of one of the highlights of the trip," Mr Taylor said. "I think if we don't see any of that, we'll just feel a bit sad that we've not seen the real Havana."

Meanwhile a citywide ban on most alcohol sales means those savouring Cuban cigars for the first time have to do so without the traditional accompanying snifter of rum.

The closures probably affect Cubans even more. Cinemas where it costs just a few pence to take in a film have been shuttered, along with theatres and dance halls.

There is a sense that having a good time would be considered disrespectful to the memory of the man who remade Cuba into a socialist state and wholly decided its fortunes from the 1959 revolution until severe illness forced him from power a decade ago.

"We are in mourning because the president died," said Manuel Ruiz, a 57-year-old parking attendant. "He is a man who deserves respect."

More than three million tourists visited Cuba last year, and the government expects even more this season as interest explodes due to detente between Havana and Washington.

On Monday the first commercial flights from the United States to Havana are scheduled to land. But with the national mourning in place through to Castro's December 4 funeral, those passengers will still find relatively little to do other than sightsee and eat.

AP

Press Association

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