Everybody in Cuba proudly knows the story of how lawyer turned general Fidel Castro swept to power in 1959 following the revolution that ousted the corrupt dictator and U.S. ally President Batista.
The revolution’s success was pronounced during a two-hour long speech by the new leader from the balcony of a municipal building in Santiago de Cuba, before Fidel’s triumphant cavalcade drove north to Havana.
On December 4th 2016 Fidel’s ashes were interred at Santa Ifigenia Cemetery based near Santiago. At his own request, Castro’s shrine is a simple affair with a granite boulder on a white marble base marking the spot where the remains of Cuba’s flamboyant leader of nearly fifty years have been laid to rest.
I visited just over a month after the burial took place to pay respect to one of the most famous people of the 20th Century. As notorious as Amin, Gaddafi and Saddam to some, as heroic has Mandela, Gandhi and Ben Gurion to millions of others.
Fidel and his leaders surely committed some war crimes after their stunning victory, in exacting revenge on opponents. On the basis of how many of his allies suffered terribly at the hands of Batista’s henchmen, this was hardly surprising.
To the Cuban on the street he brought stability, healthcare for everybody (Cuba has the highest life expectancy in the Americas) and an education system the envy of much of the First World let alone the Third.
Tellingly and symbolically the Moncada Barracks, scene of some of the greatest atrocities against the rebel’s 26th July movement, has been converted into a primary school. From suffering to learning, the pen the mightier long-term weapon for prosperity and peace than the sword.
I was really struck by the simplicity of Fidel’s grave, a solitary guard standing to attention alongside being the only real hint to the importance of the man.
Fidel’s final resting place is in the shadow of the far more extravagant mausoleum of Cuba’s national hero Jose Marti. His tomb leaves you in no doubt as to his importance to the nation, a fact emphasised by having three guards standing permanently in front of his marble burial place.
The fact that Fidel followed Marti’s revolutionary doctrine probably gives an even bigger clue as to why he wanted to be laid to rest in his hero’s shadow.
Every half an hour the guards are changed to much pomp & ceremony. We stayed to view the spectacle, which you can see for yourself by clicking here.
Other sons of Santiago province buried nearby the two great men include father of Cuban independence Carlos Manuel de Céspedes who declared independence from the Spanish in 1868, Emilio Bacardi the rum magnate, and Compay Segundo, one of the five founding members of the influential music group Buena Vista Social Club.
The whole necropolis was one of the most striking I have ever seen with extravagant white marble tombs aplenty. You certainly need to have been somebody of note to be laid to rest there.