Late Cuban leader Fidel Castro. Picture: EPA/ALEJANDRO ERNESTO
Late Cuban leader Fidel Castro. Picture: EPA/ALEJANDRO ERNESTO

Havana/New York — In Miami, there was jubilant celebration over Fidel Castro’s death; in Havana, shock and disbelief; and around Washington uncertainty over how or if US president-elect Donald Trump might re-shape Barack Obama’s policy of rapprochement towards Cuba.

In La Tropical nightclub in Havana, a salsa band suddenly stopped playing on Friday night when the news of Castro’s death became public. An announcer came on stage and said simply: "Force majeure. We have to suspend the activities. Fidel Castro has died."

"There was no audible response. Just quiet. Any Cuban in the audience younger than me has never known any other reality," said Ned Sublette, the 65-year old US jazz critic and author of a history of Cuban music. "I stood there with my jaw open; a woman came up to me and pushed it shut."

By contrast, in Miami, home to most of the US’s 2-million strong Cuban-American exile community, there was noisy jubilation. Margarita Fernández, a university student, was at home when she heard the news late on Friday. She rushed down the stairs and into Calle 8, the heartland of Miami’s Cuban community, where a programmed Friday street party was already taking place." There was hugging, celebrating, car hooters blared, everyone — young and old — were whopping it up," she said. "It was incredible, there was an uproar."

Similar scenes were repeated around Miami as news of Castro’s death spread.

Meanwhile, on Saturday morning, thousands of kilometres away in Madrid, pro-and anti-Fidel Castro groups scuffled outside the Cuban embassy, witnesses said.Castro’s death comes as no surprise.

Aged 90, he was rarely seen in public and, when he did appear, it was only briefly and looking weak and infirm. Fidel’s younger brother Raúl, 85, formally took over the reins of power in 2008 as president, and his government has long planned for this moment.

As Saturday dawned in Cuba, there was no opposition activity reported on the streets, nor any visible sign of increased state presence — unless you count the carpenters building a stage in Revolution Square for a memorial service scheduled for Tuesday.

But state-run media poured forth endless tributes — including the start of nine days of mourning; the sale of alcohol was banned; and community organisations linked to the Communist party, such as the Woman’s Federation, held rallies where chants of "Viva Fidel" rang out weakly.

"Cuba became a country of silent people this Saturday," tweeted Yoani Sánchez, publisher of the independent news website,

"t is like everyone is just sad," added Anaida Gonzales, a retired nurse in the central province of Camaguey. Castro’s death "was expected but it still came as a shock".

Amid the uncertainty, at least what happens immediately next is clear.

Castro’s body was cremated on Saturday and, after the memorial service in Havana on Tuesday, his ashes will move in a procession east across the country to Santiago, the country’s second biggest city, known as the "cradle of the revolution". There they will be put to rest on Sunday, December 4.

Beyond the memorial plans, however, there is uncertainty. Cuba and its 11-million people find themselves at a crossroads. Castro’s death comes as Venezuela, facing its own economic crisis, has scaled back its aid to Cuba.

Castro’s death also comes as the policy of rapprochement led by Barack Obama — which has relaxed but not ended the longstanding US embargo — could be rolled back by Donald Trump.

The president-elect has blown hot and cold on Obama’s policy of détente, at first saying during his campaign that he supported it but would seek "a better deal", then pledging to "reverse" Obama’s approach.

"The timing [of Castro’s death] could not be worse. It comes as the shadow of uncertainty in future US relations hangs over the island," commented Peter Kornbluh, author of Back Channel to Cuba, a history of negotiations between Washington and Havana. "What Trump says … [will] be his first major test of Presidential diplomacy and could determine the tone of relations for the foreseeable future."

On Saturday, Trump tweeted: "Fidel Castro is dead!"

In a statement from his presidential transition team, he added later: "While Cuba remains a totalitarian island, it is my hope that today marks a move away from the horrors endured for so long, and toward a future in which the wonderful Cuban people finally live in the freedom they so richly deserve."

Castro’s death also throws a spotlight on the future of the significant but still limited economic reforms initiated by Raúl Castro that have sought to balance the conflicting aims of liberalising Cuba’s flagging Soviet-style economy while maintaining state control."

One is left to wonder whether any successor will have the requisite legitimacy to take the hard decisions to pull Cuba out of its doldrums. Such decisions will come with enormous amounts of transitional pain," said Carlos Saladrigas, a moderate Cuban exile leader who supports engagement. "On the other hand, this may truly be an opportunity for President Raul Castro to start taking those tough decisions while he’s still in office. Cuba’s economy is in shambles."

As Bert Hoffman, a longtime Cuba watcher at the German Institute of Global and Area Studies, remarked pithily: "Cuba is going into fasten-your-seat-belt mode."

(c) 2016 The Financial Times

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