The official picture is one of collective mourning by masses of people over the loss of the founder of modern Cuba.
Immediately after President Raúl Castro announced the death of his older brother, Fidel, last Friday evening, the music in Havana stopped playing. Discos and movie theaters emptied out and closed temporarily. Bars and restaurants were told to severely restrict the sale of alcohol.
Hundreds of thousands of Fidelistas braved the Caribbean sun to pay homage in Revolution Square. On Sunday, stone-faced students stood on the steps leading to the University of Havana, acting as a silent honor guard for the former dictator, carrying banners with slogans and guarding a temporary monument at his alma mater.
But in a country with a regime with a history of rounding up crowds for rallies by knocking on people's doors, things are rarely what they seem.
Many Cubans, especially those old enough to remember the Revolution and the early years of communist nation building on the island, are genuine in their grief over the death of the man they saw as a national icon who defied the United States for more than half a century. But the state-imposed nine-day period of mourning also left little room for Cubans with a more dissenting view of the deceased leader.
“You need to be very careful about what you say”, one artist in Havana, who asked not to be named out of fear for reprisals, told FNL. “Any opinion that isn’t in line with the national mourning can have consequences."
Prominent Cuban dissidents show restraint in their reaction to Castro’s death, with many choosing to stay home and stage no protests or show any sign of relief or happiness over the passing of the comandante en jefe, in sharp contrast to jubilant scenes in Florida.
“People are terrified to say something that isn’t in line with the national mourning”, said Berta Soler. She heads the Ladies in White, a group of women staging protesting political imprisonment. The group, which is often the target of government action due to their persistent opposition to the regime, chose not to stage its weekly silent protest march last Sunday, which was instead held by their counterparts in Miami.
“The harassment and the repression continue,” she told FNL. “I’ve heard that people who don’t abide by the rules of not playing music received fines and have music equipment confiscated.”
According to Soler, some Cubans were told at their place of work to go out and support the national mourning. She discarded rumors that government officials were knocking on doors of homes to get as many people as possible to attend rallies and public mourning sessions, but did say that public transportation is used to facilitate such their movement.
Moreover, there were also signs in Havana that the authorities tried to restrict Cubans’ already extremely limited access to information not in line with the official national period of mourning. Only around five percent of Cubans enjoy internet access at home; the rest can go online at a growing number of wifi hotspots in hotels and in public spaces such as parks. But although social media such as Facebook and Twitter can be accessed there, opposition websites are blocked.
In at least one hotel in Havana’s old center, the router of the wireless internet was suddenly turned off on Monday, several days after Castro’s passing was announced. According to an employee of the establishment, who asked to remain anonymous, ‘government people’ ordered the router to be turned off.
“They said people had to show respect for Fidel and shouldn’t go online in large numbers”, she told FNL. She said the same thing had happened in other establishments, which FNL was unable to confirm.
Some fear that, with the loss of Fidel Castro’s towering figure, the regime may become more hostile to dissent. Last year alone, more than 8000 people were detained for political reasons, according to human rights groups.
“We believe that there will be more repression”, Guillermo Fariñas, one of the most prominent members of Cuba’s opposition, told journalists last Saturday during a press conference in Puerto Rico. “Already some brothers have there homes monitored, they won’t allow them to leave and what simply needs to be said is that, at this moment, we need more support from the international community and from democratic governments.”
Berta Soler told FNL that she too believes repression against members of the opposition could grow. “There’s a feeling of uncertainty now that Fidel Castro is gone.”
Jan-Albert Hootsen is a freelance writer based in Mexico City. Follow him on Twitter: @Jayhootsen