A lot of people have asked me about my travels to Cuba, most of all about the time at the end of November, when Fidel Castro died, shortly after I arrived in the country. I’ve had a lot of different questions about this, what happened, what the energy was like, so I feel like I almost disappoint people when I tell them, ‘Really, nothing that much happened’.
The first I found out about it was when I woke up in the morning, maybe at 6 AM or 7 AM. It was still dark – rather, there were no windows in the very tiny hostel room, where I was spending my first two days in Cuba, on the top cramp bunk above six beds crowded around a doorway. There were several messages on my phone and it took a moment for it to sink in.
When I slipped out of my bed with a daypack and a bread roll for the day, it was quiet throughout the rest of the hostel. I went next door to have breakfast with the hostel’s neighbours, and if I hadn’t waited for the owner to come back (he had been looking for newspapers to give to people staying there, but there were, unusually for Cuba, none available until later in the day, when they would make an official statement), I wouldn’t have known anything for quite some time. Because when I walked through the streets, it was quiet yes, there was no music while people tried to figure out if they were allowed to play music or not (they weren’t), there was an increased police presence, but there was no outpouring of grief, no joyous celebrations, just nothing like what I heard was happening elsewhere in the world.
So really, in a way there was no story to tell. Not in the way that I think I expect when I read a newspaper article or watch a news broadcast. The media was there to find stories and came in great forces to Cuba over the next few days. I don’t know if they were disappointed by the quietness or if they found a story they were looking for. Even so, I was frustrated by how they were working. We saw one woman crying – she was the only one we saw crying, out of hundreds of thousands, who was actually expressing an outburst of emotion like this. There were so many cameras swarming around her to get the iconic image of the country suffering. Later, she was smiling and waving her Cuban flag. It made me think a lot about what we expect to hear and what sort of stories we want to hear. Of course, it’s natural – we expect reaction, we seek emotion, and we want something to connect to.
But what there was to connect to in Cuba was something that, really, I would need days of filming and photographing to capture, because it was softer and more subtle. The stories there were to find were there, waiting, but they were found by listening to the quietness, the small bubbles forming underneath the surface. It was a shop owner telling us that she still wouldn’t be able to see her family living in Florida, so nothing had changed. It was the newspaper sellers and the hotels finding their own microeconomies by selling the newspapers from that day for a hugely inflated price, or opening their rooftops when no other museums or tourism areas were allowed to open. It was the tired faces standing watching the funeral procession for hours on end, and the suddenly louder cheers, everyone standing up and coming to attention, when Raul Castro came onto the stage.
It took me a while to decipher these stories, and what I realised at the end was, what we consider to be Castro and communism, a cult image we’ve built up, isn’t (for right or wrong) what it is on the ground level. For Cubans, it’s just life. So the news about Fidel Castro isn’t the end of an era, not for many people living in Cuba anyway; it’s just another person, who was part of that revolutionary group, who has caused them many good things and many bad things, and who now has passed on, with his brother having been in power for many years anyway. Nothing really changes, just the figure head.