‘The 20th Century Came to an End’: An Historic Chapter Closes as Cubans Prepare for Fidel Castro Memorial Ceremony

Even those who were oppressed under Castro's regime are showing respect

What to Know

  • Amid subdued grief, Cubans are preparing for an eight-day national mourning period for former leader Fidel Castro
  • American tourism in Cuba has increased 80 percent this year
  • Cuba will now have non-stop airline flights to the United States for the first time in 50 years

The normal liveliness found in Havana's streets was notably absent Sunday afternoon as Cubans prepare to nationally memorialize the late Fidel Castro. 

Sounds of afro-Cuban music wafting from the trumpets and drums of sidewalk bands were gone. There were no dancers shimmying on sidewalks. The hustle and bustle of Havana is always present, but at this moment, it is a city paying its respects.

"The Cuban people love Fidel," said Yhosvani "Yuri" Mazola. "We love Fidel, always we love Fidel."

Yuri Mazola spent seven years restoring a pink 1951 Pontiac, complete with its original engine and gear box. It's as if the country went back in time; streets were uncharacteristically silent Sunday afternoon while the automobile rolled through the famed Malecon. A banner hung in front of Plaza 13 de Marzo waved in the air; it said "thank you for everything, Fidel" in Spanish.

The somber atmosphere marks the beginning of an eight-day period of mourning for Fidel Castro, the polarizing, yet revolutionary former Cuban leader.

Even those who were oppressed under Castro's regime are showing respect, such as Berta Soler, the leader of "Damas de Blanco", or the Ladies in White, an opposition movement founded in 2003. The women and relatives of jailed dissidents typically march every Sunday after church; today, they remained inside for fear of retribution.

"Nothing will change the dictator. The dictator Raul Castro will continue his war," Soler said. "More than dictators, they are like a mafia family: they can do whatever they want and they are still in charge of everything."

Regardless of the feelings Cubans have toward the late ruler, the historical and cultural significance of his death is undeniable. 

"We're all very aware that it is a historical moment," said Luis Duno-Gottberg, professor of Caribbean-American studies at Rice University in Houston. "I was telling my students 'yesterday the 20th century came to an end.' It is that significant."

On Monday, Havana will prepare to eulogize Fidel Castro in a large ceremony at Plaza de la Revolución, which thousands are expected to attend. But with his passing comes uncertainty of how relations between the U.S. and Cuba will progress.

New non-stop airline flights to the U.S. from Cuba will begin the same day as the ceremony — the first in more than 50 years. This means good news for American tourism in Cuba, which is up 80 percent this year.

Thawing relations is a good sign for baseball fanatics like Yuri, who told News 4 New York he hopes one day he can see his New York Yankees play in the Bronx. 

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