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'Fidel está presente!': Celebrating Castro's rebellious life in Santiago de Cuba

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We must have been feeling a bit crazy last Tuesday when we decided to fly from British Columbia to Cuba two days later to attend Fidel Castro's funeral. My mother, Pat Schulz, was active in the Fair Play for Cuba Committee in the 1960s that sent delegations of working-class Canadians down to Cuba after the revolution.

These folks came back and met with Canadians in cities and towns across the country to explain how the Cuban dictator Batista had turned Cuba into a brothel and casino for rich Americans and mafiosos, and how the Cuban revolutionaries led by Fidel and Che Guevara had overthrown Batista and were working to implement a socialist revolution.

My mother went to Cuba during the fifth anniversary of the revolution and remembered it always as one of the highlights of her life. Their biggest success was in persuading Prime Minister Diefenbaker that Canada should not participate in the U.S. embargo against Cuba. As a result, Canada continued to trade with Cuba and thousands of Canadians have spent time in Cuba, establishing friendships and family relationships there over the years.

Naturally, before I left, I contacted those friends of my mother who were active in the Fair Play committee and are still around, many of them in their 70s and 80s. They shared some of their stories with me. Reggie talked about the time she wrote an essay on why history would absolve Fidel Castro and won a trip to Havana courtesy of the revolutionary government. Reggie found herself on January 1 of 1965 or 1966 sitting in the Plaza de la Revolution with thousands of Cubans eating a New Years dinner organized by revolutionary Celia Sanchez and every Cuban cook in town.

Reggie remembers some of the guys on the Cuban revolutionary junta playing a trick on Celia, telling her the night before that the dinner was cancelled. They printed up a limited edition of Granma to lend authenticity to the joke.

Harry remembers activists from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) being persecuted by the FBI in the 1960s and that some Canadian comrades hid these activists in their homes, enabling them to make it safety in Havana. It was no surprise to these folks that my partner Janet, our friend Kathy Le and I decided it was important to make the journey to say goodbye to Fidel on behalf of everyone we know who has worked in solidarity with Cuba.

When we landed in Holguin on Friday, we were met by our Cuban friends Delvis and Dugnae, who planned to drive us to Santiago in about two hours. That plan quickly fell apart. The procession carrying Fidel's ashes had left Havana on Tuesday and so we arrived in Holguin on the same day as Fidel's entourage.

As we drove along the road to Santiago, we passed mile after mile of Fidel supporters, school children, small farmers and townspeople carrying photographs of Fidel and waiting patiently for their chance to say goodbye. School children were chanting "Yo soy Fidel!" (I am Fidel!). This chant carries a double meaning of being both a part of Fidel himself and being loyal to the Revolution.

We made it to a small rural town outside Bayamo before we were asked to pull over for security reasons. So we joined the people there and the Campesinos who had come on their carts from their rural farms in keeping vigil by the side of the road, waiting for Fidel. The townspeople young and old, plainly dressed, many holding umbrellas to ward off the sun, stood together in small groups talking to one another and visiting with their neighbours.

Finally, the sun set and then the funeral entourage drove past. People chanted "Yo Soy Fidel!" spontaneously as the coffin passed, and many began to weep. For these Cubans, seeing that small coffin finally brought home the reality that their Fidel was dead.

We thanked the people nearby for sharing this moment with us, and we were kissed and thanked for being present. We got back into our car, headed for Santiago. Delvis and I held hands in the back seat as we hurtled through the night, passing thousands of Cubans heading home after hours of maintaining their vigil.

The next morning at Delvis's place, having put our banner together which read "Hasta Siempre Fidel! With love from your comrades on the Fair Play for Cuba Committee," we headed out to the Plaza Marte to see the procession arrive from Bayamo to Santiago.

On the way to the plaza, Santiago was strangely quiet and we realized that there was no reggaeton music playing. All of Santiago was in mourning. We passed house after house hung with revolutionary signs and banners mourning the loss of Fidel, and every Santiaguero we saw was wearing their revolutionary arm band or their handmade t-shirt that read "Yo Soy Fidel" and carrying their Cuban flags.

At the plaza, we unfurled our small banner and answered curious questions from bystanders about who we were and what it meant. Cubans expressed their sorrow to us over Fidel's death and their appreciation that we cared enough to come for the funeral. As Fidel's coffin passed by the thousands of school children, workers and Santiagueros lining the roads, they chanted and sang the Cuban national anthem.

On the afternoon of December 3, we made our way to the Plaza de La Revolution and I wrote this, four hours before Raul Castro is scheduled to speak, amidst the hundreds of thousands gathered to pay tribute to Fidel. We are surrounded by Cubans -- thousands and thousands of youth and young internationalists from Spain, Germany, the U.S., Chile and everywhere else you can think of.

Dignitaries have come from across Latin America and Africa to pay their respects. Of course, the rich in Miami and the United States are spinning, doing their best to re-frame Castro's legacy. But as it turns out, poor people both inside Cuba and outside have decided for themselves that Fidel was their champion.

Here in the Plaza, Cuban workers are standing up in the crowd spontaneously and speaking eloquently about all of the ways Fidel worked with them to achieve dignity and independence. The veterans of Cuba's war in Angola -- those who fought the apartheid military and helped Mandela achieve his victory -- are present with their medals of honour. There are rolling chants of "Se oye, se siente, Fidel esta presente" (We hear him, we feel him, Fidel is with us) and "Fidel amigo, el pueblo esta contigo." It is beautiful. Unforgettable. Like Cuba. Like Fidel.

Postscript: Thousands of Cubans maintained an overnight vigil for Fidel on Saturday, singing and reading poetry in his memory. Sunday morning at 7 a.m., he was brought to the Santiago cemetery and laid to rest beside his hero Jose Marti. Hasta siempre, comandante.

Katheryne Schulz lives in Vancouver.

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